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Musharraf Promises Referendum Will Be Free and Fair - 2002-04-29

In Pakistan, military leader and self-appointed president General Pervez Musharraf has made a final appeal for support in a national referendum to extend his rule. The poll will open for the referendum on Tuesday.

General Musharraf has ordered the referendum to ask Pakistanis if they want him to serve as president for five more years.

In a nationally televised address, which was translated, the military leader promised that the presidential referendum will be freed and fair.

President Musharraf told the nation that he needs their strength to move forward and pledged to abide by the people's verdict. He reiterated his commitment to hold parliamentary elections in October to restore democracy in Pakistan.

Critics say Tuesday's poll is open to voting abuse since there is no electoral roll to ensure no one votes more than once. According to election commission officials, nearly half of Pakistan's 140-million people are eligible to vote.

General Musharraf seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999 and later declared himself president. He says he needs to stay in power to ensure his political, economic and social reforms are not reversed by a civilian government after the elections.

Opposition parties have condemned the referendum as unconstitutional and have called for a boycott. They also say Musharraf has not allowed them to hold many rallies in which their platform could be heard. They say Pakistan's constitution mandates that the president should be elected by the parliament.

The Supreme Court has approved the referendum, dismissing opposition claims that the move is illegal and unconstitutional.

Pakistan's two former military dictators, Zia ul-Haq and Ayub Khan, held referendums instead of elections to extend their rule. Analyst and political commentators like Mushahid Hussain say General Musharraf is following the same pattern.

"All military rulers in Pakistan see themselves as guardians of the family silver, as [being] above the constitution, as men of destiny, who feel that the destiny of the state is linked with their own stay," he said. "His main claim was that he is different than the previous military rulers, who seized power in military coups. But now it seems that in order to stay on he is following the same path as that embarked upon by his military predecessors, like General Zia ul Haq and Field Marshal Ayub Khan.

The military has ruled Pakistan for half of its 55-year-history. Since no previous military ruler has ever lost a referendum, many Pakistanis believe General Musharraf will win the presidential referendum.