The President’s proposal to hold a referendum seeking public opinion for remaining President after October 2002 was approved by the Cabinet and the National Security Council on April 3, 2002. Preliminary indications are that the referendum will be held on May 6, by the time this goes into the print the President will have announced the date during his address to the nation. The purpose of the exercise is to determine whether the people of Pakistan approve of the President or not, and more importantly, would they want him to continue post-October 2002? Most of the major political parties, among them PML, PPP, JI, JUI and JUP, oppose the referendum on the plea that referendums are only meant to solicit public opinion on matters of great national importance and are not to be used as an election tool. On the other hand the President’s idea has received the support of quite a few smaller parties, among them PML(Q), PTI etc.
Surely, with the past record the political parties of total mis-governance and making a hash of the nation’s affairs, General Pervez Musharraf should have no problem getting the people’s vote of confidence. Political parties in Pakistan long ago lost the trust of a majority of the people, having been given numerous opportunities in the past at governance at which they failed miserably. Now they should have no locus standi. Yet being persistent, they must cry themselves hoarse at every opportunity to justify their “democratic” existence. The proposed exercise should be in fact a unique opportunity for the people to indicate whether their confidence in the political parties has been restored? The onus of credibility acquisition should be on the political parties, that should be the real referendum. If it were left to me, instead of asking whether the people want General Pervez Musharraf, the referendum would ask the question “if you think the President should not continue as President after October 2002, then vote “NO”! The political parties are proclaiming to high heaven that the President does not have the people’s support, on the contrary the masses support the political parties. As such they should have no problems in getting people to come out of their homes to vote NO, after all during general elections they usually spend a fortune from their ill-gotten gains on providing transportation, meals, etc for the voters on Election Day. If the Referendum had adopted this route, those in favour of General Pervez Musharraf would have stayed home. If the negative vote was more than 50% of the electorate that normally vote in any election ie. 36% vote in the last National Assembly Elections would mean 18% of the electorate in the Referendum, we would know the people are not with the President but with the political parties. However if “the great silent majority” voted with their feet and stayed home, we would have had confirmation that Pakistani people approve of the President. But give the President credit for not following this “negative” route when he could easily have done so. Knowing that Gen Zia’s referendum hurt the credibility of the exercise, he has the absolute courage to test the nation’s resolve by putting his own credibility on the line.
Explaining the reasons for the Referendum the President would have gone over the performances of this regime for the past 30 months and why he is seeking to legitimize his continuity in office. Instituting major reforms across the board, Pakistan has made major progress in every area of governance since Pervez Musharaf took over. When he took over, the country faced not only a bleak future but possible extinction given the economic and political circumstances. In the realm of foreign affairs we had only lip-service friends, even our traditional friends seemed to shy away from us. While Mian Nawaz Sharif made some progress restoring the credibility of the Nationalized Commercial Banks (NCBs) by bringing in professional management in Habib and United Banks, the economy went down at a fairly rapid rate because of atrocious macro-management. A glimmer of hope was given in “Revenue Collection”, Pakistan’s Achilees Heel, by the induction of Moinuddin Khan as CBR Chairman but as soon as he scratched beneath the surface and found some of Mian Sahib’s friends in Liberty Market Lahore evading taxes he was sent packing. One can go on and on but the icing of the cake was “Saif the Menace”, he single-handedly undercut the credibility of the entire accountability process. Today, Pervez Musharraf and the Army should be proud of the anti-corruption process they have institutionalized by the impartiality of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB). Whether in education health, transportation, etc, this regime has turned things around. Instead of going into an abyss there is not only light but an end to the tunnel of our own making, or rather of our politicians.
The politicians proclaim from pulpit to pulpit that military regimes do not have the support of the people. Now, when, without having a necessity to do so, except mainly for his own conscience and because he has the character and integrity that a real leader should have, Pervez Musharraf is seeking to ascertain the wishes of the people, why are the political parties seeking to deny the people of Pakistan their God-given right?
As a military ruler he could have easily ignored the wishes of the populace, instead he is taking a calculated risk that puts his own future at stake. As one of those who have opposed the referendum because of the credibility question that the Zia exercise of the 80s gave it, I can only applaud the President for having the raw courage to ascertain the wishes of the masses inspite of the fact that the major political parties, having misgoverned the nation for over a decade, are hell-bent on making the process doubtful. It is for the people of country to stand up and be counted, a vote for Pervez Musharraf is a vote for the future of Pakistan. The people of Pakistan must come out in droves on Referendum Day.
Mr. Ikram Sehgal is Publisher and Managing Editor of Defence Journal (Pakistan).