Referendum Farce in Pakistan
According to Dawn the Pakistani Supreme Court will take up the question of whether the presidential referendum that General Pervez Musharraf has called for April 30, 2002, is constitutional. Whatever the court decides (and its members will be under enormous pressure from the military to back it, as a recent high-level judicial resignation demonstrates), the referendum is neither constitutional nor at all wise.
If General Musharraf had any political confidence in himself (he has been ruling since fall of 1999) or in his people, he would simply run for president in the October elections he has called, when seats in parliament will also be contested. A referendum is a time-honored means for a dictator to remain in power. That is how Ayatollah Khomeini foisted his “Islamic Republic” on Iran, and how the Turkish generals remained in power after their coup in the early 1980s.
In a referendum, you after all face no opponent. Musharraf has nevertheless been campaigning (and apparently charging the Pakistani people for the campaign, since the funds seem to be coming out of the government). Because a referendum is not an election, and is not really contested, It cannot therefore bestow any real legitimacy. The elected parliamentarians and prime minister who will contest elections in October will be in a more powerful position than Musharraf now realizes, having the sort of popular mandate he will lack.
Musharraf will at some point begin being blamed for Pakistan’s extensive problems. He will at that point wish he could say that he was elected by the will of the people in a contested election. There is increasingly a danger that he will be seen as nothing more than America’s man, as someone who betrayed the cause of Islam for what his predecessor General Zia ul-Haq once dismissively called “peanuts,” i.e. foreign aid. This referendum may begin a spiral of further political instability in a part of the world that none of us can afford to see unstable.
And that is what military men and dictators simply cannot understand. The only stable government is one that allows for a peaceful and orderly transfer of power. Pakistan’s inability to achieve this goal may point to needed reforms. But the problem cannot be resolved by a referendum, which is just an acknowledgment of the regime’s Bonapartist character.