JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The powerful right-wing Conservative Party, after a prolonged internal debate, formally decided Tuesday to urge white voters to oppose reform of apartheid in the nation's historic March 17 referendum.
"I call on all white voters to reject (President Frederik W.) de Klerk's reforms with great enthusiasm in his own referendum," declared Conservative Party leader Andries Treurnicht.
The announcement launched what could be one of the more bitter campaigns in South African political history, with whites battling whites over whether to continue to dismantle apartheid and negotiate a new constitution with the black majority.
If De Klerk loses the referendum, he has said his government will resign and call new parliamentary elections, which many political analysts believe the Conservatives would win.
The Conservatives, who represent virtually all whites who oppose apartheid reform, now hold about one-third of the seats in the white chamber of Parliament and represent at least 1 million of the 3 million eligible white voters.
Conservative leaders wrestled for long hours behind closed doors before deciding to accept De Klerk's challenge. Many wanted to boycott the election because they think the voting procedures and the referendum question, formulated by De Klerk, will give an edge to the ruling National Party. And Treurnicht admitted that a tentative decision by party leaders to boycott the referendum was overruled by the party's caucus.
The Conservatives have made substantial inroads into National Party support in recent months. And right-wing leaders are confident that they could win a general parliamentary election because of white fears of a black government, as well as unhappiness with the recession and skyrocketing crime rates.
But the Conservatives don't have much hope of defeating the national referendum on De Klerk's policies, which will ask whites, "Do you support continuation of the reform process which the state president began on 2 February, 1990, and which is aimed at a new constitution through negotiation?"
Although the reform program De Klerk launched two years ago has sown deep uncertainty among whites, it also has opened up South Africa to international markets and sports arenas, including the Olympics, for the first time in decades.
Treurnicht complained that, among other things, the referendum campaign period of three weeks is "ridiculously short." He said the government appears to be "in a hurry to surrender power" to the black majority.
He added that even if his party loses the referendum, it would continue to press its demand that the National Party test its legitimacy with a full parliamentary election.
And Treurnicht said a large "no" vote in the referendum would be an indication of the deep dissatisfaction with the government: "Should we lose the referendum, we will have lost one battle, but it's not the end of the struggle for survival of the (white) people."
The Conservatives want to divide South Africa into separate states for whites and black ethnic groups, with the states being politically independent but economically interdependent. The government, the African National Congress and most other political groups strongly oppose dividing South Africa along ethnic lines.