PRESIDENT Frederik de Klerk has threatened to call an all-race referendum on South Africa's transition to democracy to break the current impasse in negotiations.
The idea has met with a cool response from party leaders across the political spectrum and has raised concerns of a delay in the holding of the country's first democratic ballot on April 27 next year.
But some political scientists say the referendum plan might represent the only way for the ruling National Party to resolve outstanding differences between right-wing and moderate groupings and to demonstrate the limited support for conservative parties boycotting the negotiating process.
``A referendum would allow the ruling National Party to become part of a mighty victory for reform which demonstrates an enormous majority in favor of the new constitution and the right-wing parties as a tiny minority,'' says Mervyn Frost, a political scientist at the University of Natal in Durban.
The referendum threat has heightened tensions between parties negotiating a complex transition to democracy and the six right-wing and conservative groups that have withdrawn from the talks and set up an alternative forum.
The Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and the Conservative Party have rejected the referendum idea as ``undemocratic,'' but Gen. Constand Viljoen, leader of the right-wing umbrella group known as the Afrikaner Volksfront (AVF), appeared to be keeping his options open.
The African National Congress (ANC) did not reject the proposal out of hand but warned that a referendum could not take the place of the April 27 election. An ANC statement Oct. 12 insisted that the holding of a referendum and the framing of a question could be decided only by the multiparty negotiating forum.
De Klerk committed the government to seeking maximum consensus among parties at the negotiating forum on the framing of a referendum question.
Timing is crucial. The negotiating forum must have a finalized interim constitution ready for ratification by the national parliament, which is scheduled to meet for the last time on Nov. 8.
Some political analysts have interpreted De Klerk's threat to call a referendum if political parties cannot resolve fundamental differences within the next four weeks as an indication that the South African leader is losing confidence in the face of a regrouping of right-wing white and conservative black parties.
``It would not be an exaggeration to speak about a possible [negotiations] crisis in the foreseeable future,'' De Klerk told delegates at the ruling National Party's annual conference in Cape province late Oct. 11. ``The multiparty negotiating forum no longer represents all parties,'' he said. ``It's legitimacy is therefore under fire. It cannot go on like this ... but we dare not turn back now.''
De Klerk's threat followed a meeting of leaders of the newly formed Freedom Alliance, which is made up of parties that have withdrawn from talks because the draft constitution does not accord sufficient powers to regions.
The Freedom Alliance, which includes the Conservative Party, the AVF, the IFP, and the delegations from the nominally independent homelands of Bophuthatswana and Ciskei, was formed Oct. 8 after the two homelands withdrew from the talks. De Klerk did not rule out a proposal by the Alliance that remaining political differences - mainly concerning the powers of regions - could be resolved at a ``summit of leaders'' in the near future.
The formation of the Freedom Alliance has led to the suspension of bilateral talks between its various component groups and the leadership of the ANC, including the AVF.
Western diplomats noted that a referendum would suit the political interests of the National Party far better than an election because it would place the ruling party in a majority alliance of democrats. An election, on the other hand, could expose the NP as a weak alliance partner of the ANC in a future transitional government.
But Lloyd Vogelman, director of the independent Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation in Johannesburg, warned that the consequences of any further delays in the election date could be ``very severe.''
``People are very impatient and negotiators are struggling with the issue of legitimacy,'' Mr. Vogelman says. ``But I fear that the government is confident enough - with the ANC on board - to attempt to delay an election to ensure the accommodation of the Freedom Alliance in a negotiated settlement.''
But Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, a political mediator, advocates a referendum as a deadlock-breaking device.