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Election likely to solidify army's role in Pakistan

©Associated Press
April 28, 2002

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- When voters go to the polls on Tuesday they will be deciding more than just whether Gen. Pervez Musharraf will be Pakistan's president for the next five years.

Opposition parties and Islamic groups had challenged the referendum as unconstitutional because the president normally is elected by parliament, but the Pakistan Supreme Court ruled Saturday that the referendum to extend Musharraf's term is legal.

A vote for Musharraf, a strong ally of the United States in its war against terrorism, is also certain to guarantee the military a more permanent role in civic affairs, probably one enshrined in the constitution.

It's no coincidence that Musharraf is seeking his five-year mandate as president while still in uniform as army chief of staff, the implication being that a vote for him is also a vote for the army.

His banners drive home that point.

"Be Patriotic. Vote Musharraf," reads one, accompanied by a picture of the presidential candidate in full uniform resplendent with his many medals.

Musharraf took power in a bloodless coup in 1999, throwing out democratically elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. From the outset Musharraf has been clear that he wants a more constitutionally authorized role for the army, a setup not unlike Turkey's.

Pakistan's army has ruled this poor nation of 140-million people for more than half of the country's 55-year history. Each time Pakistan's democratically elected government falls into chaos, the army either outright takes power or orchestrates a change of government from behind the scenes.

Usually the military takes over in the name of saving the country from collapse. It was no different this time. Musharraf charged widespread corruption by Sharif, whom he exiled to Saudi Arabia.

But in this referendum, Musharraf has made it easy for ordinary Pakistanis to vote.

There are no election rolls or voters' lists. Any citizen 18 years or older can vote anywhere in the country. The lack of voters' registration raises the possibility that one person might vote more than once, but Musharraf has decreed that each voter is to receive a mark with an indelible pen on a thumbnail. The mark is supposed to take two weeks to wear off, government officials say.

There will be more than 100,000 polling stations at a cost of more than $28-million. That figure doesn't include the cost of the security forces being deployed for the referendum conducted by an administration that is completely in the hands of the army. An army officer even runs state-owned corporations such as those that provide power and light.

"The referendum will end uncertainty about the reform process, bring stability and restore investors' confidence," said Nisar Memon, information minister in Musharraf's government.

"Compared to the expenses, the positive economic fallout of referendum would be much higher."

The last two bouts of military rule have been strongly condemned by the United States only to be later embraced by Washington, both times because of Afghanistan.

Gen. Zia-ul Haq, who seized power in 1977 and hanged the deposed prime minister soon after, ruled until 1988. He was admonished by the United States after his coup, and all aid was suspended until 1980 -- one year after the former Soviet Union invaded neighboring Afghanistan and Washington made Pakistan its front line state against communism.

Pakistan was the staging arena for Afghanistan's Islamic anticommunist resistance, which fought the last Cold War proxy battle between the United States and the former Soviet Union.

The terror attacks of Sept. 11 and the subsequent war had the same effect. Musharraf, who had been sanctioned by Washington and criticized as a dictator, was suddenly praised by Wendy Chamberlin, U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, for his "extraordinary cooperation" in the campaign against terror.

According to Pakistan's constitution, the president is chosen by a vote of the National Assembly or lawmaking lower house of Parliament, the Senate or upper house and the four provincial assemblies.

On Saturday, the Supreme Court struck down a legal challenge to the referendum. On Tuesday, Pakistanis will decide. There are few in Pakistan who expect Musharraf to lose. The only question seems to be the margin of his victory.

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