May issue 2002

By | News & Politics | Published 22 years ago

The state-sponsored campaign to garner support for General Pervez Musharraf in the referendum, moved towards its climax in the Frontier with the general’s visit to Peshawar, just a week ahead of the April 30 exercise. In the run up, the NWFP governor, ministers, district government representatives, various political parties, and numerous non-entities waxed eloquent on the military ruler and came down heavily on the Bhutto and Sharif governments.

The regime relied on the support of the local government for its campaign aimed at extending the General’s rule for another five years, which was readily available. All district nazims, notwithstanding their close political affiliations before the local bodies election, backed the drive. Although, the decision to support or oppose the referendum, may have appeared an awkward one at first, it did not cause major problems for the nazims affiliated with the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Awami National Party (ANP). The parties chose either to look the other way or to allow the elected representatives to support the General.

The biggest surprise, however, took the form of the support that the government received from the JI-affiliated nazims at the District Lower Dir and Upper Dir, ideologically anti-Musharraf. But even they waived tradition to actively participate in the campaign. Professor Ibrahim, the JI provincial chief, played down this occurence, stating that action may be taken against Musharraf supporters on the report of the party district amir. With such a muted response, the likelihood of this happening seems negligible.

The ANP, however, dealt with the situation in its own way. Although the party president, Asfandyar Wali Khan, had deemed the presidential referendum unconstitutional, the central council decided to abstain from the exercise rather than oppose it, in a clever strategy designed to free its party nazims and councillors to support the drive — which they did. The obvious flaunting of several red ANP flags at Musharraf’s rally, by Haroon Bilour, son of Peshawar Town One’s nazim Bashir Bilour, seems to lend credence to what many have termed a carefully planned tacit support strategy. This however, represented a wide departure from Asfandyar’s earlier assertions that, “The parliament has defined the electoral college as consisting of the four provincial assemblies, the National Assembly and the Senate, for election of the president,” and “we will not support the referendum at any cost.”

The PPP-affiliated nazims in Peshawar and Swat also followed their counterparts with equal doses of zeal. The party’s provincial president, Khwaja Muhammad Khan, claimed to have issued notices to both nazims and stated an intent to take disciplinary action in case they were found violating the party line. Whether he can afford to displease the party nazims and councillors by taking any action against them, and thereby open up a floodgate of deserters, remains questionable.

The district government, however, was not the only source of strength for the incumbent regime. The Ajmal Khattak-led National Awami Party Pakistan, (NAPP), the Sherpao faction of the PPP and the Pakistan Muslim League (QA) also provided open support, as expected.

An ardent admirer of Musharraf since his military days, Ajmal Khattak, had in the days preceding the referedum, openly been campaigning on his behalf. Vociferously lauding the General’s stance against feudalism and religous discrimination, persecution and intolerance, the revolutionary of yore urged others to stop their unthinking support of technical terms such as the ‘parliament’, ‘election,’ and ‘democracy,’ as they were simply “tools in the hands of the ruling elite to dodge the people.”

The PPP-Sherpao also extended their full support to the regime, after a meeting of the party’s delegation, led by Sikandar Sherpao, with NWFP’s governor, Syed Iftikhar Hussain Shah. This, if somewhat expected move, has intriguing connotations. The party chief and former chief minister, Aftab Sherpao, has been languishing in jail since his arrest in January, when he returned to Pakistan after a two-year self-imposed exile in London to face corruption charges in the Accountability Court. Interestingly, three much-anticipated court verdicts were delivered during the the two weeks preceding the referendum. The Peshawar High Court judgment set aside Sherpao’s three-year imprisonment for failing to face investigation and stand trial under corruption charges. In addition, an Accountability Court (AC) acquitted him of the charge of illegal appointment of female teachers in the Education Department, and this was followed by yet another acquittal in regard to the illegal allotment of plots at Hayatabad. However, he was not released, owing to the court rejecting his bail application on the Ring Road scam case — the one remaining case registered against him.

The Salim Saifullah-led provincial chapter of the PML-Q followed the party guideline regarding support to the government. In addition, Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaaf (PTI), Tahirul Qadri’s Pakistan Awami Tehrik (PAT), Omar Asghar’s newly-launched Qaumi Jamhoori Party (QJP) and Fanoos Gujar’s little known Pakistan Awami Party (PAP) have also served as the king’s party. “On April 30, you have to support a bleak or bright future for Pakistan. If you are keen on a bright future for your next generation, you must stamp yes for Musharraf in the referendum,” Imran Khan reportedly said at a function in Peshawar. During their visit to various parts of the province, the ex-cricket star together with Tehrik-i- Insaaf’s provincial president, Nawabzada Mohsin Ali Khan, focused on the corruption of the former premiers in order to seek public support for the government.

The politicians, in a number of pro-referendum seminars and meetings, invariably praised Musharraf’s policies, particularly the introduction of local government, and termed him the saviour of the country.

However, in notable contrast, the PML-N, PPP, JI, JUI-F, and JUI-S held individual and joint public meetings and staged numerous rallies to protest against, what they termed, an illegal referendum, seeking to encourage their supporters to foil the General’s bid to “capture power unconstitutionally.”

In a joint meeting at Peshawar, the anti-Musharraf parties accused the government of misusing public money for its referendum campaign and asked the regime to desist from meddling with the constitution. They also criticised the government for holding public meetings throughout the country whilst denying this right to political parties. The alliance’s rally at Shahi Bagh, Peshawar, and in other cities across the Frontier two days before polling, were the last large-scale demonstrations urging the people to oppose the General. Speakers at this demonstration described the referendum not as a bid for stability, but rather, the destabilisation of the country.

A notable feature of Musharraf’s referendum campaign are the large number of unknown entities who participated in the campaign. Banners emblazoned with affirmative slogans appeared at vantage points along the cities and in the General’s rallies. One such banner read, ‘Kaun bachayega Pakistan: Musharraf Khan, Musharraf Khan,’ while another stated ‘Musharraf: the hero of Kargil’ — slogans that may have well served to embarrass the General. But, blatant sychophancy notwithstanding, the festivities of unconditional support carried on, undampened by any erstwhile anti-Musharraf sentiments.