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Wednesday, 3 April, 2002, 14:32 GMT 15:32 UK
Musharraf poll approved
General Pervez Musharraf
Musharraf seized power in 1999
Pakistan's cabinet has unanimously approved a national referendum on extending President Pervez Musharraf's term of office for five years.

We have rejected it earlier and we reject it now

Opposition PPP spokesman

According to an official statement, a joint session of the cabinet, provincial governors and the National Security Council of military chiefs agreed to hold the referendum on "important national issues".

It said General Musharraf will address the nation on Friday to "take the people into confidence on the details of the referendum".

The president has made it clear that he intends to legitimise his rule through a national vote ahead of parliamentary polls scheduled for October - although the move has sparked a bitter debate in the country.

General Musharraf, who led a bloodless coup in October 1999, ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's elected government, charging it with corruption and abuse of power.

Mixed reaction

In recent weeks, the president has met the leaders of some of Pakistan's political parties to sound them out on his referendum plan.

Some political groups have offered their support, but the political parties of Nawaz Sharif and another former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, have described it as an attempt to legitimise the role of the military in any future civilian set up.

Protesters demonstrate against Pakistan's campaign against militancy
A vocal opposition challenges the general

"We have rejected it earlier and we reject it now," said Farhatullah Babar, a spokesman for Ms Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party.

"The stricture of illegitimacy is haunting General Pervez Musharraf. It will continue to haunt him even after the sham referendum," he told the AFP news agency.

Pakistan's main religious groups have also rejected the referendum, which they have vowed to boycott.

"This cabinet, like Musharraf is a non-representative body. It is a slave of Pervez Musharraf," Muslim League Vice President Zafar Ali Shah told the BBC.

Pakistan's independent human rights commission has called it a farcical exercise, and has urged General Musharraf to restore an undiluted democracy by holding free and fair elections.

President Musharraf does not appear to have been deterred by this negative reaction.

"I believe in taking a calculated risk. I want to know whether or not the nation requires me," he was quoted as saying at the weekend.

A "yes" vote would mean he would be president for another five years, thus bypassing the constitutional provision under which a head of state can only be elected by the national and provisional parliaments.

Western support

General Musharraf's support for the US-led campaign against terrorism has won him support from Western countries and donor agencies.

Opponents of President Musharraf's pro-coalition policy burn US flag
Religious extremism remains a major worry

The general's crackdown on Muslim militants has won praise at home and abroad, but religious extremism remains a potent force in Pakistan.

And his support for separatists active in Indian-administered Kashmir has led to a large number of troops being deployed along the tense Indo-Pakistani border.

But the lifting of sanctions, the flow of new aid and resumption of military exchanges with the United States have both benefited Pakistan and strengthened the general's image.

General Musharraf says he has strong faith in the wisdom of the people of Pakistan and, according to him, they alone can decide his future role in the country's political affairs.

The BBC's Zaffar Abbas
"A "yes" vote will mean Mr Musharraf will be president for another five years"
Former adviser to Benazir Bhutto, Husain Haqqani
"The result is already a foregone conclusion"
See also:

03 Apr 02 | South Asia
Musharraf goes for 'Zia option'
31 Mar 02 | South Asia
Musharraf signals referendum plan
21 Mar 02 | South Asia
Referendum rumours rife in Pakistan
13 Mar 02 | South Asia
Musharraf warns opposition leaders
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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