Pakistan's military leader President Pervez Musharraf is reported to be planning to hold a national referendum that would allow him to stay in power for at least another five years if it is approved.
President Musharraf discussed the referendum with editors of leading Pakistani newspapers on Saturday. He is quoted Sunday as saying he will announce the move within a week and the referendum will go ahead in early May.
General Musharraf took power in a bloodless coup against the elected government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in October 1999. He has suspended the constitution and has declared himself president of Pakistan, while promising to hold elections in October.
All of Pakistan's major political parties have opposed a referendum. General Musharraf is quoted as saying he needs more time to "consolidate his political and economic reforms."
Pakistan's now suspended constitution gives parliament the authority to elect the president as well as the Prime Minister. That is why President Musharraf's referendum move has come under fire from major political parties and constitutional experts.
Ehsan Iqbal, a spokesman for the ousted Prime Minister Sharif's political party, the Pakistan Muslim League, said "there is a way, which is prescribed in the constitution, and that is that parliament and the four provincial assemblies, they serve as an electoral college to elect a president. So if there is any attempt to elect a president through referendum, that is extra-constitutional and undemocratic. We oppose it and we think that through this they [the government] want to then influence the upcoming elections."
The Pakistan People's Party of Pakistan's former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, has also condemned the referendum as an "unconstitutional move."
Legal experts like, Akram Sheik, said that Pakistan's constitution allows for referendums on vital national issues, but not for presidential elections. "I think it would be an excise in futility," he said. "They have [the government] announced elections and after the election are complete then General Musharraf can put himself as a candidate for president. I don't think that it would be worthwhile or confer any legitimacy on President Musharraf by seeking a referendum opinion from people of Pakistan."
Pakistan has been under military rule for nearly half of the time since its creation in 1947. The country's last dictator, General Zia-ul Haq, held a referendum in 1984 to extend his hold on power. He died in an unexplained plane crash four years later.
President Musharraf's seizure of power was condemned by U.S. and Western democratic leaders. But since the September 11 attacks in the United States, General Musharraf has become one of Washington's critical allies in the war on terrorism and criticism of his rule has disappeared.
In his Saturday's meeting with leading Pakistani journalists, President Musharraf also repeated that former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif cannot run in future elections.
Mr. Sharif's party spokesman Iqbal condemned the statement, saying that by barring the two leaders, the general is trying to rig the elections even before they are held. "If we are saying that my opponents will not be allowed to contest elections and I am the president for next five years, that means we are trying to stage some kind of the Robert Mugabe's-style democracy in Pakistan," he said. "It is not in the interest of the country. He should allow all national political parties and national political leaders, including Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto to contest elections, and let people decide their fate, let people decide their future. That is the spirit of democracy."
Ms. Bhutto lives in self-exile but has been talking about returning home to her country to take part in elections. She faces corruption charges in Pakistan.
Ousted Prime Minister Sharif has been exiled to Saudi Arabia after he struck a deal to commute a 21 year jail sentence for hijacking and corruption in exchange for political silence.