Pakistan's Democracy Put to Test ; If Victorious in Today's Referendum, President Pervez Musharraf Will Secure Five More Years in Power

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Pakistani strongman President Pervez Musharraf appears set to win today's national referendum, paving his way to return the country to democracy - under military tutelage - after the promised elections this fall.

In a weekend verdict, the country's Supreme Court tossed aside all remaining challenges to the legality of today's referendum.

Today's referendum, which, if victorious for Mr. Musharraf, would give him another five years in power, is more than just a popularity contest for the man who decisively led Pakistan away from its 20- year flirtation with Islamic extremism after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

The outcome of this referendum could have immense consequences for Pakistani democracy, say experts, politicians, and ordinary Pakistanis. So while many Pakistanis support Musharraf the man, they fret about the pattern that Musharraf is perpetuating, a pattern of military intervention in civilian politics.

The problem with Musharraf, says Ejaz Haider, a prominent Pakistani journalist, is not so much who he is but how military intervention has weakened Pakistan's democratic institutions. "In the last decade, all of our governments were voted in, but none of them were voted out," says Mr. Haider, news editor of The Friday Times in Lahore. "The voter thinks he doesn't have any say in the political process."

Indeed, most political analysts expect that Musharraf will win with a huge majority, perhaps up to 95 percent.

"Musharraf will win - by hook or crook, by fair or unfair means. There is no doubt about it," says Khalid Mahmood, political analyst at the Islamabad-based Institute of Regional Studies.

But winning is not the same thing as winning a mandate, say political analysts. If a large number of the voters feel the results are already decided, and either boycott the polls or simply stay home, then Musharraf will have difficulty claiming that a majority of Pakistanis support his future plans of reworking the Constitution and reshaping which parties and which leaders can participate in the future.

Around 70 million people aged 18 or older are eligible to vote in the referendum, the third in the country's 54-year turbulent political history.

Mainstream political and Islamic parties, kept on a tight leash by the military government, have struggled recently to mobilize people to boycott the polling.

From the beginning, there has been evidence that the government machinery has been in action supporting the referendum, adorning cities with Musharraf's pictures and banners. According to reports, local administrations and police impounded private buses to ferry people to Musharraf's rallies. …