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Pakistan: Voters Go To Polls In One-Sided 'Vote Of Confidence' In Musharraf's Rule

  • Charles Recknagel

Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf is holding a referendum tomorrow on extending his rule. But in calling the referendum, the Pakistani president has been widely accused of abusing democracy in Pakistan, even as he claims to be rescuing it.

Prague, 29 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The tone of the criticism being leveled at Pakistani President General Perez Musharraf these days by the country's mainstream press tells much about the mixed emotions many citizens feel regarding the general.

Criticism has mounted steadily since Musharraf -- who seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999 and declared himself president last year -- announced he would hold a public referendum this month so that voters could express their opinion on his leadership. Musharraf has called the referendum a "vote of confidence" in his rule.

That referendum takes place tomorrow following weeks of campaign-style appearances by Musharraf to bring out the voters. Musharraf has said the referendum will serve as a popular mandate to extend his term as president for another five years.

Crisscrossing the country, Musharraf has cast aside his military uniform to don flamboyantly colored regional turbans as police at roadblocks have commandeered transportation to bring crowds to stadiums. Many of those filling the stadium seats are reported to be attending less than entirely voluntarily, including government workers, schoolteachers, and small children.

Making one of his final stops on Sunday in Karachi, Musharraf appeared before a crowd of several thousand people amid banners, flags, and posters saying "I Love Musharraf." He called on the crowd -- with a politician's flair for the sound bite -- to give him their votes, saying, "Trust me, I will take you into the 21st century."

He also called the referendum constitutional and a way to assure future reforms. "I appeal to all of you to cast your vote and take others to cast their votes, as well. Your vote will be for the continuation of the reforms," Musharraf said.

The rallies have surprised -- and dismayed -- some Pakistani political commentators. They are used to seeing Musharraf as a quiet and principled military dictator seemingly uncomfortable with street politics.

Najim Sethi, the editor of Pakistan's "Friday Times," described Musharraf's moves to vote himself into the presidency in a recent story by saying: "Here is a sincere man who convinced almost everybody that he was above all this. But in politics, it is opportunism and realism and pragmatism that come first, and suddenly, one by one, his principles of 'liberal Pakistan, modern Pakistan' are falling down."

Another mainstream paper, the "Daily News," said in a commentary that "by plunging into an unfair battle [to be elected president], General Musharraf has not added anything positive to the credibility he has been enjoying as a reluctant and benign dictator."

Behind the newspapers' criticisms lies the unease many Pakistanis are reported to feel over seeing Musharraf engineer the extension of his own tenure after once promising to return the country to full democracy after a short "caretaker" period.

Heads of state in Pakistan are supposed to be chosen by the two houses of parliament, which Musharraf first suspended, then dissolved, after taking power. Tomorrow's referendum comes ahead of new parliamentary elections scheduled for October.

Now, critics say, Musharraf is adjusting the pace of the return of democracy as he sees fit. The critics' worries have been heightened by remarks by the general himself, who has suggested parliament will have a free hand to run the country only so long as it performs according to his standards.

"If the government is not running well," Musharraf said recently, "that is where my role will come in as the president." Musharraf also has talked of putting in place a military-dominated security council that would keep watch over the workings of the government -- a system similar to what is in place under military rule today.

Pakistan's main political parties have reacted furiously to Musharraf extending his presidency, just as they did to his 1999 coup. That coup took power from then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League, who was exiled by Musharraf. The general is equally opposed by the Pakistan People's Party of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who went into self-exile shortly before a court sentenced her to jail in 1999 on charges of taking kickbacks. All opposition parties were almost entirely banned from holding rallies in the run-up to tomorrow's referendum. All opposition parties were almost entirely banned from holding rallies in the run-up to tomorrow's referendum.

But if the main political parties have called Musharraf's referendum a blow to democracy, other Pakistanis have responded positively to the general's message that these same parties have shown themselves too self-interested to run the country, making a supervised democracy necessary. The two parties have engaged for decades in a seesaw battle for power that has repeatedly brought the same leaders into office as the heads of huge patronage systems, while the economy has stagnated.

Musharraf repeatedly charged the mainstream parties with both self-interest and corruption in his referendum campaign, including at his recent rally in Karachi. There, he told the crowd: "The previous governments have borrowed money from abroad and have lined their own pockets.... We wish to bring back that money that was wasted so that our future generations can move ahead."

There is enough obvious evidence of Pakistan's past mismanagement to convince many Pakistanis there may be some truth to the general's words. The country is struggling under a massive $37 billion foreign debt, and the standard of living has declined over the past decade. Britain's "Economist" magazine reported recently that in 2000, some 30 percent of Pakistanis could not afford to feed themselves adequately, compared to 20 percent in 1992.

Musharraf has been able to contrast that poor record with some notable successes of his own, in winning new and desperately needed foreign assistance for his country. For joining the U.S.-led war on terrorism, he has been rewarded both by Washington and international lending agencies, which see Islamabad as trying to contribute to regional stability.

Reuters reported earlier this year that Pakistan is likely to get a total of $1.5 billion in foreign economic aid and loans this year. Musharraf's support for Washington has also brought an end to U.S. economic sanctions imposed on both Pakistan and India after the two countries carried out tit-for-tat nuclear tests in 1998.

In winning that assistance, Musharraf has displayed considerable talent for managing his country's own militant Islamist parties, which hope one day to replace democracy with theocracy. At the height of the U.S.-led operations to topple the Taliban in Afghanistan, Musharraf had some 2,000 militants arrested to quell pro-Taliban street demonstrations.

But since then, the military government has freed several detained militant leaders or put them under house arrest, including the heads of two banned extremist groups. Many lower-level militants have also been released for lack of evidence. Pakistani political observers say such moves help Musharraf use the Islamists as a counterweight to the mainstream secular parties -- creating a delicate balance of power hinged on his own rule. After tomorrow's referendum, as a popularly mandated president, Musharraf will have to continue his balancing act. But to do so without appearing to remain a dictator may become harder once national elections are held in October and parliament reconvenes.

Still, for now, Pakistanis appear ready to give Musharraf a chance to try, even if many consider his one-sided referendum a worrisome way to get back to democracy. Historically, the odds of Pakistan having a democratic government are about equal to those of having a military dictatorship. The country has been ruled by the military for almost half the time since it became an independent state 54 years ago.