GWEN IFILL: Pakistanis delivered a vote of confidence today to President Pervez Musharraf, with early returns suggesting overwhelming approval. Almost no one was surprised. His opponents called the referendum unconstitutional, and predicted few would vote. But Musharraf had no opponent, and his presidency, seized in a bloodless military coup in 1999, will continue for another five years.
Musharraf has been a controversial ruler, earning some enemies within Pakistan, and grudging respect abroad for his efforts to crack down on corruption and reform the nation's economy. Musharraf, who is also the nation's military leader, emerged as a key U.S. ally as President Bush sought support in the region for the war in neighboring Afghanistan.
The Pakistani President cast his vote today in a referendum he called himself, this in spite of a promise to stand for election later this year. President Musharraf's decision to schedule today's referendum, rather than waiting for October's parliamentary elections, stirred considerable debate among Pakistanis. In the days leading up to the vote, Ian Williams of Independent Television News sampled public opinion.
IAN WILLIAMS: An anguished Pakistani father whose son was recruited to fight for the Taliban. Thousands went to Afghanistan, many of whom were killed or are still missing. President Musharraf has promised to find them and bring them home, and to fight the extremist scourge that sent them.
PRESIDENT PERVEZ MUSHARRAF: There is no room for any religious extremism and intolerance in Pakistan. I have said that, and will continue pursuing this course. We will not tolerate any religious intolerance and extremism.
AFRASIAB KHATTAK: He has been very good at rhetoric, but he has been very weak at substance.
IAN WILLIAMS: Afrasiab Khattak knows a thing or two about extremism and military dictators. He was jailed by the last one, Zia ul Haq, his old prison sitting beside a mountain road north of Peshawar. The road leads to a tribal village from which many of the Taliban's Pakistani recruits were drawn. Khattak has come to meet anxious fathers, having drawn up a list of a thousand missing people. He blames the government for their plight.
AFRASIAB KHATTAK, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan: And they did go, and the government closed its eyes. They did not notice... they did not decide to take notice. So it was a disaster. Thousands of people, sentimental people, simple people, naive people went into another country to fight without any preparation, without any planning.
IAN WILLIAMS: Although their leader has been jailed, the militant Pakistani group that recruited the Taliban fighters still operates openly, and ridicules Musharraf's talk of a crackdown.
MAULANA JAVED, Taliban Recruiter: It's a total failure. If he tries to crack down on us, the whole country will incur the wrath of Allah. If he tries to jail Islamic people, to ban them, to subject them to brutality, he will eventually bring disaster.
IAN WILLIAMS: Khattak says a military leader can never solve Pakistan's problems.
AFRASIAB KHATTAK: Well, he is a military dictator, a usurper, an unconstitutional ruler, a fellow whose rule is not supported based on the constitution and law. But unfortunately, because of the events after September 11 and his joining the coalition, he has become a good guy. He is getting good press in the West, and unfortunately the restoration of democracy in Pakistan has gone to the back burner.
IMRAN KHAN, Movement for Justice: People don't see him as a dictator. They see him... they see hope in him, and they see darkness behind.
IAN WILLIAMS: Imran Khan thinks the General needs to be given the benefit of the doubt. With the major parties urging a boycott of the referendum, he's become Musharraf's biggest cheerleader. He thinks Pakistan needs the General for another five years, since militancy and corruption can't be erased overnight, and the old tainted politicians need to be kept at bay.
IMRAN KHAN: Well, we don't have much choice. It's either him, or back to the 11 years of darkness. The thing that appeals to me about him most is that he's honest. Now that, in a third-world country, let me tell you, is a very rare commodity-- a leader who's honest, who's not making money, who's not building his own factories or big castles and, you know, these palaces, as the past rulers have been doing.
NAJAM SETHI, Editor, The Daily Times: Although there is not enough democracy in the classic sense, in a legitimate sense, people seem to be happier under this benign dictator than they were under an autocratic democrat.
IAN WILLIAMS: And he should know. Newspaper Editor Najam Sethi was jailed by Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan's previous democratically elected leader. Under the general, he's started a new daily. His papers are fiercely independent, though-- a cartoon pointing up how Tony Blair and George Bush, bitterly critical of Musharraf's coup, now go meekly along with whatever he does, grateful for support against terror. But Sethi says power may be going to the general's head.
NAJAM SETHI: But I must tell you that we are a little apprehensive. The government is not as tolerant as it was six months ago.
IAN WILLIAMS: In Peshawar, surrounded by intense security, Musharraf claimed his crackdown on extremism and support for the American-led war on terror have raised Pakistan's standing in the world.
GWEN IFILL: Now, for more, we're joined by Zamir Akram, the deputy chief of mission at the Pakistani embassy in Washington. And Dennis Kux, a retired State Department official who specialized in south Asian affairs. He's also the author of "The United States and Pakistan, 1947-2000: Disenchanted Allies." Mr. Akram, why was there a need for a referendum now when there was a regularly scheduled election that President Musharraf had agreed to hold that was scheduled for October?
ZAMIR AKRAM, Deputy Chief of Mission, Pakistan: I think the reason is that the President wants to demonstrate that the people of Pakistan support his reform policies, the policies that he has instituted to change... to turn the economy around, to control religious fundamentalism, to… ensure true democracy at the grassroots level. These are some of reforms he wants to demonstrate that he has the support of Pakistani people and that's important for him to show that before the elections of October this year.
GWEN IFILL: Why before the elections, why is that important, the timing?
ZAMIR AKRAM: Because it is important for the succeeding government, the next elected government to sustain that program. We have had in the past, the experience in the past has been that whenever some corrective measures have been taken, elected governments that we've had during the 90's have deviated from those policies.
They have not had the courage to pursue those reforms and some of the reforms are tough, like agriculture or income tax and some of the other measures that have been taken. He needs to show that the majority of the people of Pakistan want those reforms to take place precisely to the kind of people elected in the elections of October.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Kux, Mr. Akram I believe is saying that elections can't be trusted necessarily to result in the best... what is best for the country. Is that....
DENNIS KUX, Former State Department Official: I think in a way my good friend Zamir is saying that and that in part is part of the problem that Pakistan has faced not just now but throughout its history. That the rulers in particular the military rulers when they have been in power, don't trust the people.
They believe in rule from above, much as the British viceroys rules. And I think it's rather sad that this has happened now because I think General Musharraf, President Musharraf is a good man and he wants good things for the people of Pakistan and the program he laid out is basically a good program, but I think politically he has made a mistake because before the referendum he was really widely popular.
And pretty much I think as Imran Khan said and as Najim Seti said on the TV that we saw -- but I think by going for referendum which not only endorses his policy but it elects him for five more years he is showing that he is in a sense afraid of going the political route.
GWEN IFILL: Has he undercut his credibility by doing it this way?
DENNIS KUX: I think to some extent he has. And I think that's unfortunate. He's -- instead of standing above the battle, as he did before, he has made himself a political candidate. And in an election that isn't really... the election referendum, there weren't voting roles. There will be a big argument over how many people participated or didn't participate. There wasn't any really -- you couldn't vote against Musharraf. It was like voting against motherhood. I think it's unfortunate because he is a good man I think he's been poorly advised in going this route.
GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask Mr. Akram about the wording that people were asked to vote. I'm just going to take chunks of it, but it basically asked voters to support "the establishment of democracy, continuity of reforms and the elimination of extremism" -- things you can't really much imagine people voting against. Did you expect there to be any significant vote against these kinds of principles?
ZAMIR AKRAM: This - the devolution of power -- the fight against extremism these are issues that need to be seen in the context, particularly in the context of the last ten years.
These are policies which should have been, as you say, the policies of any sensible government in Pakistan but unfortunately that is not what happened. These are issues of a very critical importance today as we saw in the film clip that we just... that was on just now, that there are people who have different views and there are people who you know, claim that extremism is a good thing.
So he basically wants to show that the people of Pakistan support his policies, that these are good for the people of Pakistan, and that this is going to be sustained over the next five years so that Pakistan can be brought out of the problems that it has been facing.
GWEN IFILL: What circumstances changed between today and 1999 when Mr. Musharraf came to power when he promised at the time that he would be a caretaker? What changed between then and now?
ZAMIR AKRAM: Well, I think that the most important thing is to be able to sustain these policies. What we have seen is that in the past we had people who say they'll stick to a certain agenda and then because of political compulsions do not do that. The economy in particular -- our real focus is getting on the economy on track.
That's the success for all the issues we face, to overcome those issues. And, therefore, for him to be able to show that this is going to be a sustained effort, for instance, it's extremely important to give the confidence to the investors inside the country and outside the country that this is going to be a sustained program. That is just one example.
It's important for him to be able to ensure that there's real devolution of power at the grassroots level, which has already started, and that this program of devolution to the grassroots will actually lead to real involvement of the people.
Some of the programs that he has for instance, empowering the women... reserving seats for woman at the local bodies level, at the level of provincial assemblies, these were things that should have been done in the past and were not done in the past and that's what he wants.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Kux, what do you think changed between now and 1999?
DENNIS KUX: Well, I think his record on the economic front has been a good one. But I think the biggest thing... two things that have changed. One, he has grown accustomed to power, and he wants to continue in power. I think he was more humble when he came in - and the other thing, which is tremendously important that has happened -- is 9/11 because the war on terrorism and Pakistan's decision to join the war on terrorism has brought about a fundamental change in Pakistan's policy towards the Taliban.
They have said no, they have done a 180 turn. They are with us against the Taliban, they are helping us but the other half of terrorism in Pakistan the Jihadys the freedom fighters that the ISI, Pakistan's intelligence service, was supporting against India and Kashmir hasn't changed that much.
GWEN IFILL: Let's talk about now 9/11 changed not only his relationships in Pakistan but abroad. How significant was that in your view?
ZAMIR AKRAM: Well, I think that 9/11 has been very significant in the sense that it has helped Pakistan to come out of a difficult situation that it was facing with its neighbors. It has helped Pakistan to put its agenda on the international stage. It has helped improve... which the relations between Pakistan and the United States were not bad but certainly September 11 has helped to facilitate an improvement very quickly in their relationship ..
GWEN IFILL: How has September 11 and his renewed relationship with the United States -- has it put him in a more dangerous spot politically in Pakistan especially with the extremists?
ZAMIR AKRAM: Well, I don't agree with that, but the majority of the people in Pakistan are not extremists or fundamentalists. Our record in past elections has shown that these kind of people don't get more than 5% of the vote. So it's a small minority. It's a vocal minority but it's a minority. And you can see that when he took the decision to support the war against terrorism, people in Pakistan were expecting crowds to come out in the streets and that didn't happen.
But while I'm on the subject, I want to disagree with my friend Dennis Kux that the issue of extremism and fundamentalism has been addressed by General Musharraf across the board. I would not agree with him when he describes the freedom movement in Kashmir as a terrorist movement at all.
I'm sure he doesn't feel that the indigenous struggle of the Kashmiri people against Indian occupation is terrorism. We're opposed to terrorism in all its forms and we'll oppose terrorism anywhere but we must also all be clear in our mind to make a distinction between terrorism and general legitimate freedom struggles as in Kashmir.
GWEN IFILL: Who are the political... you can respond, certainly.
DENNIS KUX: -- because I think what is happening inside Kashmir by the Kashmiris again the Indians -- that's one thing. But it's quite another thing when you have these Islamic extremists inside Pakistan being supported and trained and what have you by Pakistan's intelligence service-- the ISI -- and being infiltrated over the border.
That's called terrorism and that is what General Musharraf -- President Musharraf in his speech on January 12th, which I think was an excellent speech, said Pakistan was going to turn away from -- Pakistan was going to deal with what my friend Zamir said its basic problems, education, other domestic problems, but the record isn't very good on it. What he has said is one thing but what is happening seems to be something else.
GWEN IFILL: Let's talk a little bit about what happens after today's referendum. Does President Musharraf - assuming he wins -- which nobody assumes differently -- does he now have a mandate in addition to a victory?
ZAMIR AKRAM: That's certainly what he wants -- is a mandate to ensure that this reform process that he has brought about will be sustained and he hopes that this will demonstrate that he has the majority support for it. GWEN IFILL: Even if political parties called for boycotts of this election and turnout was pretty low?
ZAMIR AKRAM: Let's talk about turnout. Turnout in Pakistan elections has not been very high in the western context, as we see it. It's been around 20-25%. So if the turnout is around that figure, it's a fairly representative turnout as you can get in Pakistan. I have seen reports that our minister for information is saying that the turnout is going to be somewhere near 30%.
We'll have to wait and see exactly what the turnout is. We also have a whole host of internationals observers monitoring the elections and they'll monitor the elections in October later this year. So I think that the validity of this vote is not in question. Yes, the opposition will say these things. I would as a commentator on the issue would have said that if the opposition wanted to oppose it they should have gone and voted against it rather than boycotting it.
GWEN IFILL: Well, help us with our western view of how these elections are and what turnout means. From your, from the way you've watched this, do you believe that the outcome of this election might end up undercutting Musharraf's credibility?
DENNIS KUX: Yes, it does, but in a different way than one might think. I mean in one sense there will be continuity because through this election he is going to be around for another five years. There are good things about that. The bad thing is that he has burned his bridges at least for the time being with the mainstream political parties.
Instead of reaching out to the parties and trying to work out some sort of an arrangement with them he has pushed them aside and he's said -- basically said you're no good. -- and so now he is not really supported... he's supported by the people but if you're going - as he said -- from sham democracy to true democracy, you need political parties and Pakistan has them. They haven't done very well but he should be trying to work with them and he hasn't done this.
GWEN IFILL: Dennis Kux, Zamir Akram, we're out of time. Thank you very much for joining us.