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The World

Musharraf's Credibility in Balance

Pakistan: Referendum today will show whether release of militants has undercut president's popularity.

April 30, 2002|PAUL WATSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — President Pervez Musharraf is asking voters to extend his rule today, but since he is the only choice on the referendum ballot, the real question is whether his credibility will survive the vote.

Musharraf, an army general who seized power in a bloodless 1999 coup, is seeking five more years in power without standing in a democratic election.

In Islamabad, the capital, turnout appeared low soon after polls opened at 9 a.m. today. Yasir Mehmood, 22, was working the pumps at a Shell gas station and said he didn't plan to vote.

"We belong to that segment of society that can't say anything about any government," Mehmood said through an interpreter.

About 50 men were lined up to vote next to the emergency ward at Capital Hospital, all of them government workers from the same agency that runs the hospital: the Capital Development Authority.

Rafiq Hussain Shah, 30, an office clerk in the development authority, said he and the rest of his colleagues would vote for Musharraf because they believe that his policies are good for the country.

"The politicians are making a hue and cry because they aren't getting any opportunities to indulge in corruption," Shah said. "That's why they're making all sorts of noises about the referendum."

Musharraf had won strong support by forcing out corrupt politicians and rounding up Islamic extremists. But in recent weeks, he has released suspected militants and some of their leaders from detention and sought support from religious hard-liners, which has undercut his popularity, Pakistani analysts say.

"He has damaged himself," said lawyer Abid Hasan Minto, former head of the Supreme Court Bar Assn. "People who have seen him aligned with people of the character he has chosen have become doubtful and suspicious of what his future will be."

Opposition groups are urging their supporters to boycott today's referendum. They say the vote is illegal and stacked in Musharraf's favor so that he can force through changes that will strengthen his power, and the military's, for years to come.

Musharraf has said he will consider the referendum binding if more than 35% of eligible voters cast ballots. To boost his chances, he lowered the legal voting age from 21 to 18 and declared the country a single constituency so that people can vote at any polling place they choose. There are no voter rolls for the referendum, which the opposition says is an opening to widespread fraud.

"Tricks or no tricks, the result of the referendum is already known," Minto said. "In fact, Pervez Musharraf has said more than once himself, 'I have gone for this referendum only because I want a positive result.' So that is the end of the matter."

On April 5, Musharraf told the nation in a televised speech that he planned to continue holding power as army chief of staff and president at the same time. He also said he would try to amend the constitution to give the military a permanent role in government.

He acknowledged that his plans for a national security council made up mainly of generals had stirred fears in Pakistan, which has been ruled by military regimes for half of the nearly 55 years since the country was born at the end of British rule.

"There is a negative perception that it will destabilize the elected government, but that is not true," Musharraf said. "The security council's job will be to keep checks on everyone--the president, prime minister and the chief of army staff--to stop unbalanced, impulsive actions."

Without mentioning details, Musharraf repeated in a televised address Monday night that he intends to amend the constitution and allow Pakistan's people a say in the reforms.

Musharraf held 23 rallies in the three-week referendum campaign. Several were nationally televised. The opposition was allowed to hold only one public meeting, late in the referendum campaign, and with little notice to enable it to call out supporters.

When doctors wanted to back Musharraf's referendum, they were allowed to rally. But when lawyers went on strike to protest the vote, police detained scores of them.

Justice Tariq Mehmood resigned from the country's election commission because he considered the referendum unconstitutional, and then he was forced to resign from the high court bench in the province of Baluchistan.

The judge said friends and colleagues "fear that my telephone is being bugged, and if the government discovers that any of them share my views, they will also face similar consequences."

Although the president's opponents have joined in the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy to boycott the referendum, they are weak and divided against the general's military regime, which portrays itself as the savior of Pakistani democracy.

The United States and other foreign governments have issued only muted criticism of Musharraf's effort to consolidate power, but Minto said that's probably a good thing because Pakistanis need to mature and struggle for political changes on their own.

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