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Thursday, 21 March, 2002, 11:48 GMT
Referendum rumours rife in Pakistan
Many Pakistanis celebrated General Musharraf's takeover
General Musharraf may be testing the waters
test hello test
By Zaffar Abbas
BBC correspondent in Islamabad

Newspapers in Pakistan have continued to report that President General Pervez Musharraf is contemplating plans to hold a referendum in an attempt to legitimise his stay in office - despite a strong denial by the government.

Protester sets fire in Lahore
Sectarian tensions and political violence pose a challenge

On Wednesday, the Information Minister, Nisar Memon, brushed aside such reports as mere rumours, but almost all the leading newspapers on Thursday say the referendum is very much on the cards.

Speculation about plans to hold a referendum have been strengthened following comments by some politicians who met President Musharraf on Thursday.

More than 30 members of the pro-government faction of Pakistan Muslim League met him to discuss the proposed plans for general elections in October this year.

Two senior members from the group, Ejaz-ul-Haq and Begum Abida Hussain, later said the issues discussed at the meeting included reports about General Musharraf's plans to hold a referendum.

Rumours rife

They did not say anything about the president's own views on the matter.

General Pervez Musharraf
President Musharraf wants to pursue his reforms
But it was enough to trigger another wave of speculation that General Musharraf is thinking of going to the people in order to legitimise his stay in office even after the parliamentary elections.

However, the newspapers are not sure of the timing of such a referendum.

Most newspapers say it will take place in May, and according to the News International, the probable date is 22 May.

At least one Urdu newspaper has reported that the referendum will be in June, and according to the daily Dawn even the top military commanders have given their approval for such an exercise.

However, the newspaper's editorial page described it as a futile exercise.

Kite flying

And it has reminded General Musharraf of a similar attempt by another military ruler, General Zia ul-Haq, in 1984 which failed to legitimise his rule in the eyes of the people.

Pakistani soldiers patrol city streets
The military will retain influence even after polls

Political observers believe President Musharraf is faced with a serious constitutional problem.

They feel he may have to devise some mechanism to legitimise his economic and political reforms, and his stay in office.

But it is being said that at this stage he is only consulting various political groups, and perhaps the military government is itself encouraging this speculation to get a sense of public opinion about any possible referendum.

See also:

13 Mar 02 | South Asia
Musharraf warns opposition leaders
13 Feb 02 | South Asia
Musharraf seeks US backing
24 Jan 02 | South Asia
Rural backing for Pakistan reform
17 Jan 02 | South Asia
Pakistan's political vacuum
14 Feb 02 | Country profiles
Country profile: Pakistan
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