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Friday, 5 April, 2002, 20:34 GMT 21:34 UK
Analysis: Musharraf's referendum gamble
General Pervez Musharraf before the beginning of his speech
Musharraf follows a precedent set by General Zia
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By Owen Bennett-Jones
BBC Pakistan analyst

General Pervez Musharraf hopes the referendum will give his presidency legitimacy.

A referendum win would allow him to remain in office until 2007 and he could well stay on even longer.

After his coup in 1999, General Musharraf declared in a press conference that he would remain in office for just three years. But like many military rulers before him he is reluctant to give up power.

He argues that his staying in office is the only way to ensure economic recovery, social stability and the eventual establishment of "true" democracy in Pakistan.

But he is also motivated by a fear that, if he were to stand down in favour of democratically elected politicians, he could face a treason charge. The army has never been able to deny that the 1999 coup was unconstitutional.

Military precedent

A referendum win, however, might not give President Musharraf the legitimacy he is seeking.

A former military ruler in Pakistan, General Zia, also called a referendum but the tactic brought him few benefits.

In 1984, Zia put this question to the Pakistani people: "Do you endorse the process initiated by General Mohammed Zia ul Haq, the President of Pakistan, to bring in laws in conformity with the injunctions of Islam as laid down in the Holy Koran and Sunnah of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) and for the preservation of the ideology of Pakistan".

Pakistanis watch Musharraf speech on TV
The military fears a low turn-out
Even though Zia won, the question was so loaded, and the turnout so low, he still faced sustained challenges from the politicians right up until the moment he died in suspicious circumstances in a 1988 air crash.

President Musharraf has indicated that this time the referendum will be in the form of a simple "yes" or "no" question.

But the military fears a low turn out. All the main political parties and religious groups have called for a boycott of the vote.

Politicians fight back

The politicians now believe the army will deny them power for the foreseeable future. When the referendum result is announced next month, the turn out figures will almost certainly be disputed.

Ever since the 1999 coup, the major political parties have played a muted role, for the most part accommodating themselves to the military government.

Now, President Musharraf is clearly determined to remain in power they are likely to oppose him with greater vigour.

Under Pakistan's constitution, the president should be elected by the membership of the National Assembly and the Senate.

The politicians had hoped that, after the parliamentary elections due this October, they could use that power to deny President Musharraf another term.

But by opting for a referendum, President Musharraf is calculating that he will be able to by-pass the constitutional procedure and remain in office even if the politicians oppose him.

The BBC's Zaffar Abbas
"To persuade voters to come out on the day will be a major task"
See also:

05 Apr 02 | South Asia
Musharraf calls May vote on presidency
03 Apr 02 | South Asia
Musharraf goes for 'Zia option'
03 Apr 02 | South Asia
Musharraf poll approved
13 Mar 02 | South Asia
Musharraf warns opposition leaders
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