General Pervez Musharraf finally quit as Pakistan army chief yesterday, just one day before starting a second five-year term as president.
He passed the baton of command to his successor, General Ashfaq Kayani, at a ceremony at army headquarters in Rawalpindi.
Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 coup, is to be sworn in as civilian president today, having relinquished his position in the one institution that guaranteed his power.
"The system continues, people come and go, everyone has to go, every good thing comes to an end, everything is mortal," a tearful Musharraf told top brass and government leaders at the change-of-command ceremony.
The opposition parties of ex-prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif welcomed the resignation. They are both mulling their participation in a January 8 general election they say can't be fair under emergency rule that Musharraf imposed on November 3.
"It is a pleasant moment in the history of Pakistan. Now our army will get a full-time general as its leader," Bhutto told reporters in Karachi.
Musharraf's power and influence in the nuclear-armed country, that is key to the US campaign against Al-Qaida and its strategy in neighbouring Afghanistan, are bound to be diminished.
The question is by how much.
"Naturally, the support of the army, that's what has been vital," said a former army commander, Mirza Aslam Beg, who declined to take power when President Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq was killed in a 1988 plane crash.
Beg said he expected significant changes, beginning with more aggressive opposition demands to end emergency rule. Musharraf is due to address the nation today and he could use the occasion to end the emergency.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Musharraf's resignation was a good first step. "We do continue to expect that Pakistan needs to end its state of emergency and free and fair elections need to take place," Rice told NBC's "Today" show.
Government officials said Musharraf's resignation would have no impact on efforts to combat terrorism.
How long he will be president will depend on the parliament that emerges from elections, particularly as Bhutto and Sharif, whom Musharraf ousted in 1999, have been allowed back.
Musharraf will need support in what analysts expect to be a hung parliament. He could face impeachment over manoeuvres to stay in power which rivals say violated the constitution.
Musharraf's trump card remains the military, which backed his use of emergency powers. The poker-faced, chain-smoking Kayani, well regarded by US counterparts, is seen as loyal to Musharraf.
Source: China Daily/Agencies