Musharraf Seeks to Remain President
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LAHORE, Pakistan (AP) _ President Pervez Musharraf launched a campaign to extend his rule on Tuesday, proclaiming at an elaborately staged rally that his military government had saved Pakistan from being branded a terrorist state.
Tens of thousands of people were bused into the park where Pakistan’s independence movement began in 1940 to hear Musharraf’s campaign speech _ the first of the general’s political career.
Musharraf, who took power in a bloodless 1999 coup, has called an April 30 referendum to extend his rule by five years and to expand the powers of the president and of the military ahead of parliamentary elections in the fall that will restore civilian rule.
``The future of democracy in Pakistan is in your hands,″ Musharraf told the crowd. ``On the day of the referendum, you people have to decide: Do you want to return Pakistan to the people who looted our country? Do you want to end my reforms?″
``No,″ the crowd responded, with little enthusiasm.
The constitution calls for the president to be elected by parliament, which will be chosen in October. Musharraf, who dissolved parliament when he took power, said the referendum was constitutional _ and called anyone who says otherwise a hypocrite.
His speech reflected his lack of campaign experience. Dressed in a camouflage uniform, Musharraf ran through his accomplishments as president but never energized the crowd.
He lashed out at Pakistan’s last two prime ministers, saying they looted the country and now live in opulence abroad.
Those two former leaders _ Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif _ are in exile but still head Pakistan’s two largest political parties. Both parties are boycotting what they call an unconstitutional and fraudulent referendum.
Musharraf accused Bhutto of creating the Taliban movement in Afghanistan and of failing to support those fighting Indian rule in disputed Kashmir.
``She is a hypocrite, and I am exposing her,″ Musharraf said. ``We will not allow her to come here. She has no role in Pakistan.″
Musharraf said in contrast, he has built up Pakistan’s international role by splitting with the Taliban after the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States. Until then, Pakistan was the Taliban’s closest foreign ally; it is now a key U.S. partner in the war on terrorism.
``A few years ago the world said Pakistan would be declared a terrorist state, but now the situation is different,″ he said.
Musharraf said he had led a dignified defense of Kashmir _ which both India and Pakistan claim as their own _ and the master-of-ceremonies described Musharraf as ``a tiger″ India wouldn’t dare mess with.
The president’s only mention of Muslim fundamentalists came when he criticized religious parties for opposing his referendum.
``Are we not Muslim? Are we not religious? Why are they opposing us?″ he said. ``These are the people who gave us bad advice on Afghanistan. These people sent Pakistani children to fight in Afghanistan, where they were killed.″
The speech was nationally televised, and Musharraf’s comments were clearly aimed beyond the mostly poor crowds bused in by the local government to fill the Minar-e-Pakistan park.
Many government institutions and universities told employees to show up at the rally rather than work Tuesday, people at the event said. Local leaders were paid to bring people from their communities to the rally.
Many of those attending declined to comment on Musharraf’s speech, saying they were too uneducated to give an opinion.
Sajida Ashraf, who has struggled to support two children since her husband died five years ago, said she would vote yes in the referendum because Musharraf ``is promising that he will help the poor, that he will solve their problems.″
Asked whether he had done anything that helped her, she said: ``No. Maybe now he will.″