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Musharraf Facing Growing Criticism On Referendum - 2002-04-29

In Pakistan, a national referendum is set for Tuesday, in which Pakistanis will vote on whether self-appointed President General Pervez Musharraf should remain president for another five years. General Musharraf says his continuing in office will ensure stability, but there is growing criticism from Pakistanis who say his campaigning is squandering resources and undermining his credibility.

President Musharraf says a vote in his favor in the referendum will allow him to continue his economic, social and political reforms after October's parliamentary elections. Responding to critics of his bid to extend his term as president, he told a recent news conference the move will also ensure political stability in the country.

"It will be an expression of support to these issues through my continuity," he said. "And as a result of this, I feel that there will be stability, there will be political harmony, and we will not return to the destabilized political environment of the past."

General Musharraf's bloodless coup in 1999 was widely welcomed, amid rising frustration with corruption and political misrule under former prime ministers Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto.

But since President Musharraf announced his plan earlier this month to hold a referendum on extending his term in office, some Pakistanis seem to be taking a more critical view. Many people are unhappy about the state resources being spent to promote General Musharraf and his campaign.

State-run television has been running campaign ads, in which national songs are played under clips of President Musharraf speaking on his domestic and foreign policies.

In one ad, General Musharraf is telling viewers that Pakistan is a nuclear power of 140 million people, and the international community cannot sideline it. The song that follows the message says all Pakistani's are behind General Musharraf.

Imran Nazir, a commercial banker in Islamabad, says the referendum campaign is costing too much money for a poor country like Pakistan.

"It is being overdone," he said. "If you switch on television, it seems that the whole country is only indulged in celebrating the referendum. And if you go by the fanfare and the band-wagons moving around in the city, it seems that there is some sort of folk festival going around."

Nineteen-year-old Mashal Ahmed mistrusts the image the general is projecting. "He is portraying himself to be more of a politician," she said. "You know that everybody in Pakistan has a lot of misconceptions about politicians. They have a bad image, and if we finally got somebody who is good enough for the country, he should not have portrayed such an image."

In his speeches, General Musharraf has repeatedly accused past elected governments of using state money to promote their political agendas.

Mushahid Hussain, a former information minister who is now a political commentator, says President Musharraf is now doing that. "It's very ironical that those governments and leaders were criticized in the past for using state-machinery for political purposes, which is precisely what has been done during this present campaign," he said. "So, I feel that this whole exercise has not raised the stature of General Musharraf. In fact, it has pulled that stature down a few notches, even in the eyes of his strong supporters."

President Musharraf rejects criticism of his referendum campaign, saying the money spent is part of democratic practices. He also says the large crowds at his rallies show his support is growing. He dismisses allegations that these gatherings are staged.

"I think I am also not that naďve not to understand whether people are coming of their own volition or they are being forces to come," he said. "And if at all somebody is arranging some transport for them, or facilitating their coming, he is not forcing them to come. Nobody can force people to come to such places. You can force hundreds or a few couple of thousand of people, but you cannot force 250-thousand people to come."

Many Pakistanis say, since no previous military ruler has ever lost such referendums in Pakistan, they believe President Musharraf will win on Tuesday. But some also say his campaign may have damaged his credibility.