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Musharraf Outlines Referendum

Asia: The Pakistani president's bid to extend his rule is opposed by those who say the vote defies the constitution and who favor elections.

April 06, 2002|PAUL WATSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Portraying himself as a savior of Pakistani democracy, not an enemy, President Pervez Musharraf on Friday called a referendum for early next month that he hopes will give him five more years in power.

Musharraf, dressed in his army general's khaki uniform, announced the referendum on national television during a speech that lasted more than 90 minutes. The president, who seized power in a bloodless 1999 coup, appeared mindful of opposition charges that he is violating the constitution.

"Those who want me to continue my reform should be on my side," Musharraf said. "I want the entire world to know that the 140 million people of Pakistan are behind me."

Musharraf said the referendum will be held in May but that he's leaving it up to the country's Electoral Commission to decide the exact date and wording of the question that will decide if he stays in power.

He also said that exiled prime ministers Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto won't be allowed to return to Pakistan to "plunder the national wealth."

But a spokesman for Bhutto insisted that she will come back before parliamentary elections scheduled for October and fight for votes from inside a jail cell, if necessary. Bhutto fled the country in 1999 to escape corruption charges leveled by Sharif's government.

"Benazir Bhutto will return to Pakistan and take part in the [October] elections, and lead the people in their democratic struggle, whether it pleases or displeases anyone," her spokesman, Farhatullah Babar, said here after Musharraf's speech.

"Even if she is sent to prison," Babar said, "she will contest the elections from prison."

Bhutto's father, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was deposed and hanged by military dictator Zia ul-Haq in 1979. Zia's government received massive U.S. aid for its role in supporting the war against the Soviet occupation of neighboring Afghanistan.

By becoming a front-line ally in the Bush administration's war against terrorism, Musharraf has won essential support from the U.S. and other Western governments that once pressured him to hand over power to a democratically elected leader.

Bhutto apparently hopes that history will continue to repeat itself and return her to power. She made a defiant return from exile in 1988 after Zia died in a mysterious air crash, leading her party to a massive victory.

Opposition parties and powerful Islamic groups have all condemned Musharraf's effort to legitimize his hold on power through a referendum instead of standing against other candidates in a normal election.

"The constitution does not provide for the election of a president through referendum," Babar said. "So this is unconstitutional, illegal and immoral. The way he has interpreted the constitution is an insult to the constitution."

Babar's party and others have vowed to boycott the referendum, and some moderates here fear that religious extremists could use the referendum campaign to stir up anti-American passions, especially if the violence continues in the Middle East.

Like Musharraf, Zia held a referendum to seek a democratic mandate. He claimed more than 62% support after the 1984 vote, which few accepted as credible because there was a widespread boycott and charges of vote fraud.

Zia also posed a referendum question so complicated that his opponents accused him of trickery.

That referendum's 78-word question, posed in a single sentence, asked in part whether voters supported Zia's process of "bringing the laws of Pakistan in conformity with the injunctions of Islam."

That strategy, known as "Islamicization," is blamed for the secret links between the military and Islamic extremists that created the terrorist and militant groups that Musharraf now says he is determined to dismantle.

Although Pakistani authorities have arrested more than 2,000 suspected Islamic radicals since Musharraf joined the war against terrorism last fall, his government has released hundreds of them and the military is accused of protecting terrorist leaders.

Some Pakistani analysts have suggested that Musharraf is letting the radicals go free in order to improve relations with Islamic hard-liners, just as Zia did when he consolidated his power in the 1980s by encouraging religious extremism.

Babar said that it isn't clear yet whether Musharraf's public commitment to the war against terrorism is sincere but that there is already evidence of "a disconnect" between what the president says and what he does.

He cited the case of Maulana Masood Azhar, leader of the banned militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed, which the U.S. and India have accused of terrorism. Azhar was moved from jail to house arrest, Babar said, instead of being charged and tried for his alleged crimes.

In Pakistan's parliamentary democracy, the legislature is supposed to choose the head of state. But polls suggest that Musharraf has won a lot of support by taking power away from traditional, and deeply corrupt, political parties.

"It's not necessary that we have the same democracy as in Britain, that we just copy them," Musharraf said. "Every country needs to have democracy according to their own environment."

Babar called Musharraf arrogant for suggesting that "a handful of generals" can clean up corruption in Pakistan's government when, Babar maintained, defense contracts are rife with corruption.

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