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Commonwealth slams Musharraf vote plan

Musharraf seized power in October 1999 in a bloodless coup  

Staff and wires

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- President Gen. Pervez Musharraf's plan to use a referendum to stay in power drew fire Saturday from the 54-nation Commonwealth.

Musharraf announced Friday that voters would be asked next month whether they wanted him to remain in power after the restoration of civilian rule in October.

The 54-nation Commonwealth suspended Pakistan after Musharraf seized power in October 1999 in a bloodless coup.

In a statement, Commonwealth Secretary-General Don McKinnon said Musharraf had not mentioned a referendum in the roadmap to democracy he had presented to the organization, made up of Britain and its former colonies.

"While we are awaiting further details, the holding of a referendum on the extension of Gen. Musharraf's term in office would, therefore, not appear to be in keeping with the roadmap announced by him," McKinnon said.

Elections preferable

The 54-nation body indicated that next month's plebiscite appeared to be aimed at extending his term of office and that regular elections would be preferable.

"Such a device has also been used in the past by a former military leader in Pakistan to extend his term in office. The Commonwealth would urge the application of established constitutional processes to decide on the election of national democratic institutions."

Army chief General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq, who seized power in July 1977, extended his rule by use of a referendum.

Musharraf did not say how long he wanted to stay in office, but he is widely expected to seek the usual five-year term.

Analysts expect him to win by mobilizing the machinery of state, although the main political parties have declared their opposition to his plan.

Local opposition

All five religious parties and the two main secular parties -- the Pakistan Peoples Party and the Pakistan Muslim League -- oppose the referendum and say they will not recognize the outcome.

If the parties manage to keep the turnout low, it could raise questions of legitimacy that could haunt Musharraf throughout his remaining years in office, analysts say.

Furthermore, Pakistani commentators say they believe the opposition generated by the referendum could spill over into the new parliament, souring its dealings with Musharraf even before the members are elected.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Philip Reeker on Friday said U.S. officials "think it is important that Pakistan follows constitutional procedures as it pursues this process, with legality of any particular action such as a referendum to be decided by the courts, if that is required."




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