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Analysts Ponder Future of Pakistan's Democracy - 2001-08-15

Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf has set October 2002 for national elections - three-years after his military coup. The general has promised to reform the country's suspended constitution as part of the election preparations, which has raised concerns about how free and fair the polls will be.

General Musharraf laid out his long-awaited "road map" to democracy on Tuesday. The move is meant to return Pakistan to civilian rule by the end of next year. According to the plan, voting for national and provincial assemblies will be held from October 1-11, 2002, the deadline set by the country's Supreme Court.

General Musharraf promises to reform the election commission and prepare accurate election rolls to hold free and fair polls. He has also said that changes will be made in the constitution to create checks and balances in the political system.

Analysts and political parties have raised concerns over the military leader's plans to bring constitutional changes. While announcing dates for the national elections, General Musharraf did not say if political parties could contest the elections. They were barred from taking part in the just concluded local council elections.

Political analyst Mushahid Hussain says the election announcement is likely to ease some of international pressure on the military government. But the announcement did not give a clear picture of the future democratic set-up, because General Musharraf has given no indication that he intends to give up his leadership position. "Until and unless we are clear about the nature of constitutional amendments and the role of political parties, I feel there is ambiguity on that count," he says. "The only thing certain, as of now, is that elections are scheduled in October 2002 because of the Supreme Court mandate. But beyond that there is no specificity and there is still a lot of ambiguity. But I think that there would be a reluctance of the political parties to accept constitutional amendments."

Farhatullah Babar is a spokesman for one the country's major political parties, the Pakistan Peoples Party headed by former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Mr. Babar says that General Musharraf wants to introduce changes in the constitution to retain power for himself in the future parliament. "He [General Musharraf] has also spoken about the amendments in the constitution without spelling out as to what does he actually want," Mr. Babar says. " And going by the previous military governments, which have always tended to strengthen their positions, there are genuine fears that General Musharraf will seek to strengthen his position at the cast of democracy and democratic institutions in the country."

Four political governments have been dismissed in Pakistan since 1985 on charges of misrule and corruption.

Pakistan's Law Minister Shahida Jameel says it is time to put the house in order. She says in the absence of checks and balances, there has been political instability that has deepened the country's economic problems. "From one crisis to another for the past 15 years, no government could even sustain itself. We were having various procedures within assemblies and on brute majority amendments to the constitution were made," says the minister. "I cannot say what it is that he [General Musharraf] has in mind as yet. He will be discussing it, but nothing is there as such. These issues will be discussed in the country with various people. So there is going to be a national dialogue on it."

Pakistan has a history of constitutional changes that entrench leaders. Former military ruler Zia ul-Haq changed the constitution in 1985 to give more powers to the president. Those were withdrawn by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who also attempted to increase his powers before he was ousted by General Musharraf in the military coup in October 1999.

General Musharraf declared himself the country's President in June. Analysts say that through the promised constitutional changes, he is likely to return the powers to the presidency, leaving him in the dominant position when he hands over his role of chief executive to a prime minister after the election.