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Pakistan: Musharraf Plans Referendum To Avoid Presidential Election

The military-led government in Islamabad has approved a plan for a referendum next month that reportedly would ask whether to extend General Pervez Musharraf's self-declared presidency by five years. Musharraf seized power through a bloodless coup in October 1999. He has been ordered by Pakistan's Supreme Court to hold legislative elections by October. The referendum is widely seen as an attempt by Musharraf to legitimize the results of his coup and stay in power regardless of October's election results.

Prague, 4 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Pakistan's military ruler General Pervez Musharraf is due tomorrow to announce details of a referendum that is expected to extend his self-declared presidency by five years.

Pakistan's National Security Council and the federal cabinet announced yesterday it had jointly approved the referendum on what they called "important national issues." The expectations about Musharraf's upcoming announcement are based on remarks that he made to journalists last weekend about the referendum plan.

Musharraf has ruled Pakistan since October 1999 when he seized power from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, declared himself president, and sent the democratically elected Sharif into exile.

Musharraf's self-declared presidency has been backed by the country's Supreme Court on condition that legislative elections are conducted by October in order to restore a democratic government.

Musharraf has said the referendum is likely to ask for a "yes" or "no" vote on whether he should continue his domestic reforms and efforts to fight terrorism. If a majority of voters say "yes," Musharraf would then use the result to justify extending his term in office.

Pakistan's major political parties have all signaled opposition to the referendum on grounds it would violate Pakistan's Constitution. Six political parties in the United Action Committee of Islamic Parties have announced plans for a boycott. Other parties have challenged the planned referendum in Pakistan's Supreme Court.

Musharraf has already said he will not allow ousted Prime Minister Sharif -- who heads the Pakistan Muslim League -- to participate in October's parliamentary election. He also has barred former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto from taking part.

Analysts say the referendum could be an attempt by Musharraf to stay in power without direct competition at the ballot box against Islamic fundamentalists who form part of the political opposition.

Samina Ahmed, an analyst at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, says Musharraf hopes to extend his term before restrictions are eased on several political parties that would participate in general elections.

Ahmed says that if the referendum is conducted after those restrictions are lifted, Musharraf is more likely to lose control.

Pakistan is not a member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. But the OSCE's top election official, Hrair Balian, was willing to talk to RFE/RL today about Pakistan's upcoming referendum in general terms.

"A referendum to extend General Musharraf's term of office seems odd to me. He's not an elected president in the first place, so perhaps a more appropriate way to extend his term would be to stand for elections."

While Balian says Pakistan's case is not directly comparable to the situation in Central Asia, he points out that referendums already have been used by the presidents of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan to extend their terms of office.

"We've faced this situation of a referendum extending a presidential term in the OSCE, but always for presidents who have been elected in the first place -- in some cases not at all in a fair election. But nonetheless, the referendum follows an election. And it is extending the terms of an elected official. I have questions in my mind, at least, whether this is the proper way [for Musharraf] to do it."

Balian said a referendum used by Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov to attain the title of "president for life" was among the most dubious votes in OSCE countries.

"In Turkmenistan, all the referendums and elections that have taken place in the last 10 years are completely out of line -- completely out of line with democratic standards. There have been no elections. It's basically appointments."

He said another questionable referendum extended the term of Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbaev.

"In Kazakhstan, the term of office [of Nazarbaev] was extended. But again, this was the case of an elected president -- no matter how flawed the election was -- nonetheless an elected president extended his term. And the referendum did take place under much less than democratic conditions."

Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov is the most recent Central Asian leader to avoid a re-election campaign against political opponents by instead calling a referendum.

"In Uzbekistan [in January], there was a referendum extending the president's term of office from five to seven years. What we said at the time was that there is nothing in international law or standards that prevents a country from extending the term of office for its president so long as it is done within certain limits. Then one needs to look under what conditions the referendum takes place. That is, the democratic nature of the referendum itself -- the transparency, the accountability, the secrecy, [whether it was] equal, fair and free."

While the OSCE will not monitor Musharraf's referendum or the October elections in Pakistan, Balian nevertheless describes the issues he thinks should be monitored: "One of the things I would look at is the conditions under which this referendum will take place. There are certain international standards for any kind of a vote -- including a referendum. Will there be room for those who oppose the referendum to air their views in the media? Will there be room for a campaign for and against the referendum? Will there be room for public meetings on the issue?"

The National Security Council that unanimously approved the referendum plan includes the heads of Pakistan's army, navy, and air force. Those military leaders are all strong supporters of Musharraf.