December 31 is noted for its festive overtones, but for the people of Pakistan the date now has added significance. President Pervez Musharraf has vowed to decide whether or not to discard his army uniform by year-end. But there is an orchestrated campaign by top state functionaries and ruling coalition leaders for him to continue to hold the dual offices of the president and army chief 'for the greater national interest'. This has led to growing speculation the president, who seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999, might renege on his pledge to leave the post of army chief. Pakistan's religious parties have threatened to take to the streets if he retains both roles. 'We will launch a countrywide protest against Musharraf if he does not keep his promise to the nation,' warned Fazal Rehman, leader of the opposition and secretary-general of the MMA, or Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, a conglomerate of the six major religious parties. General Musharraf moved last year to have his term of office, extended by a controversial referendum to run until 2007, endorsed by parliament. The endorsement was not possible without the support of the MMA, which has a sizeable parliamentary majority. A deal was stuck whereby the religious parties helped the president push his controversial constitutional amendments through parliament. In return, General Musharraf gave his word to step down as army chief by the end of this year. Any backtracking by the president on the deal now would be seen by the powerful religious groups as a breach of trust. General Musharraf's supporters say his continued presence as the army chief has been necessitated by the changed circumstances of the past year. The hunt for al-Qaeda remnants on the country's western frontiers is under way, anti-US feeling is on the rise and the government is facing the challenge of forging consensus on large development projects such as the construction of big dams. All these challenges, they argue, require a strong military president. The president, meanwhile, seems to have had second thoughts and has hinted he might go back on his promise. 'Ninety-six per cent of people want me retain my uniform,' he remarked in a recent television interview. The implications of such a decision may have far-reaching effects on the country's already fragile democratic structure. The Musharraf debate highlights how the country continues to be ruled by a few individuals despite the pretence of a functioning democracy.