Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf held a series of private meetings over the last week to discuss options for the Supreme Court-mandated October elections that will return the country to civilian rule. The Financial Times reported that Musharraf, who seized power in a bloodless coup in October 1999, is considering an up-or-down referendum on a five-year extension of his presidency ahead of the October vote, perhaps as early as May, and some commentators suggested the meetings were a way to gauge public reaction to the proposal. According to the Nation of Pakistan, “Although the official statements, issued after President’s meetings with politicians, suggested that various options and proposals were being considered for ensuring continuity of reforms and process of political restructuring, the government had so far not hinted at any other option except referendum.”
The Gulf News of Dubai noted that if Musharraf chooses the referendum option over a conventional election format, “he would be following in the footsteps of General Zia ul Haq, the last military ruler.” Although Musharraf needs to gain electoral legitimacy to allay Western allies’ discomfort about his lack of a popular mandate, the Gulf News asked, “What credible democracy could legitimately allow a one-man electoral race to lead towards a one-man rule?” The Frontier Post of Peshawar asked, “[I]f the government enjoys the overwhelming support of the masses, what does it have to fear from sticking to the constitutionally laid down procedure for the election of the president by parliament and the four provincial assemblies?” The Post also fretted that some of Musharraf’s proposed amendments to the current electoral rules—including reallocating the number of seats each province has in the National Assembly and requiring candidates to be graduates—could cause some “politicians out of favour with the regime” to be barred from contesting the elections. “Were the government to go down that road, the chorus accusing it of mala fide intentions of pre-election stacking the deck and gerrymandering is likely to grow louder, along with greater opposition emerging to what is transparently an effort by General Musharraf and his team to hold on to power at any cost.”
A Nation op-ed said the desire by Pakistan’s establishment to “control the political process, and to prop up artificial leaders instead of dealing with those genuinely elected by the people, has undermined the nation’s capacity to evolve its political institutions.” It continued:
The permanent machinery of state—the so-called establishment—has a tendency to look down upon the uneducated masses and their chosen leaders. Instead of rescuing democracy from the excesses of its incompetent practitioners, the establishment only proposes elitist solutions that a few years down the line turn into problems themselves.