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Musharraf's Sights Set on a Referendum

Politics: The Pakistani president is expected Friday to announce a national vote. Critics say his bid to extend his rule violates the constitution.


ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — President Pervez Musharraf is expected Friday to announce a referendum that he hopes will give him five more years in power despite opposition charges that the plan violates the constitution.

Pakistan's Cabinet and National Security Council, which includes the heads of the armed services, said Wednesday that they "unanimously approved the holding of a national referendum on important national issues."

The official statement added that Musharraf will speak to the nation Friday "to take the people into confidence on the details of the referendum." But Musharraf has been suggesting for weeks that he will seek a popular mandate through a referendum, which could come in May.

Opposition parties and religious groups have warned against the move, and radical Muslim leader Fazlur Rehman is already calling for his more than 550,000 supporters to boycott any referendum.

"Musharraf has abrogated the constitution, and there is a punishment for that," Rehman, who heads the Jamiat-ul-Ulema-e-Islam party, said in an interview. "If he were not the president, he would be in jail."

Rehman was in police custody for more than five months until he was released two weeks ago. He had been held as a threat to public order, but Musharraf has allowed several radical Islamic leaders to go free in recent weeks, along with hundreds of their supporters, in an apparent attempt to build support in advance of the referendum.

1999 Coup Brought General to Power

Musharraf overthrew Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in a bloodless coup in October 1999.

He allowed Sharif and his family to go into exile in Saudi Arabia in December 2000 after the deposed prime minister was convicted of corruption and conspiracy to hijack Musharraf's plane on the eve of the coup.

Last year, Musharraf named himself president, but Pakistan's Supreme Court ruled that he must restore full democracy, with parliamentary elections, by next October. Musharraf had dissolved parliament after the coup.

Before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, Western governments also were pressing Musharraf to give up power and return Pakistan to democratic rule. Now that the army general is a key ally in the war against terrorism, he faces no foreign pressure to step down.

Cold War military ruler Gen. Zia ul-Haq had similar support from Washington in the 1980s because he provided a secret conduit for weapons to the moujahedeen fighters in neighboring Afghanistan during the war to end Soviet occupation there.

Zia held a referendum to legitimize his rule at the end of martial law in 1984. His opponents alleged widespread fraud and said a massive boycott left him with less than 10% support among the electorate. But the electoral commission reported that 62% of eligible voters had endorsed him.

Less than four years later, on Aug. 17, 1988, Zia died in a mysterious plane crash, along with the U.S. ambassador, the American defense attache to Pakistan and 27 other people, including several high-ranking military officers.

The Pakistan People's Party, whose former leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was ousted as prime minister and then hanged by Zia, predicted this week that the nation's main political parties would tell their supporters to boycott Musharraf's referendum.

Bhutto's daughter Benazir, also a former prime minister, is in exile and would probably have to face corruption charges if she returned to Pakistan. But her party has repeatedly said she will do precisely that to stand in parliamentary elections set for October.

Under the Pakistani Constitution, the head of state is elected by the two houses of parliament. If he won the referendum, Musharraf's rule would thus be established before the parliamentary elections are held.

Vote Could Turn Into a Violent Campaign

Some Pakistani analysts have warned that a national vote on Musharraf's rule could turn into a violent campaign against the increasing role of the U.S. military and FBI investigators here as they go after suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban members in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

"Pakistan has become a police station of America, and Musharraf is the senior head officer," Rehman said, with a hearty laugh.

Six radical Islamic groups in the United Action Committee, which includes Rehman's party, announced Tuesday that they will stage protests in several cities to demand the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Pakistan.

But similar threats fizzled out after the U.S. launched the war in Afghanistan last fall, and Musharraf may be calculating that what he calls the "silent majority" will ignore a boycott call by Islamic hard-liners and more mainstream political parties.

Using a tactic that served him well during the crisis immediately after Sept. 11, Musharraf has met with some of his biggest enemies, along with leading editors and commentators, in recent weeks in an effort to build support.

His interior minister, Moinuddin Haider, said Sunday that Musharraf is confident of winning a referendum.

"He'll be in a stronger position to provide strong leadership to the country for the continuation of his reform policy and policies against terrorism," Haider told a local newspaper.

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