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.
The opposition parties, by contrast, have been struggling to compete. Clustering under the 15-party Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy, opposition groups finally were granted government permission to hold a massive rally this past week in the eastern city of Lahore.
If Musharraf wins the referendum today, Pakistan would revert to a democratic process, says Hasan Askari, former head of the political science department at the prestigious Punjab University. "But the military government will have a lot of freedom to shape the future system according to its likes and political preferences. The military will retain veto power."
According to government insiders, Musharraf would substantially rework Pakistan's Constitution to cement the Army's political role in civilian politics.
New amendments would be written to create a balance of powers among the holders of the offices of president, the prime minister, and the chief of the powerful half-million-strong Army. A national security council, comprising a mix of military top brass and civilian leaders, will also be set up to work as a watchdog body to keep the elected government on the right track. Musharraf has said he would continue as Army chief if he wins a new presidential term.
People generally appreciate Musharraf's performance over the past two years and his rallying call to make Pakistan a progressive, tolerant Islamic state free of religious extremism and terrorism. But this popularity could be sorely tested if opposition parties somehow win a larger share in the upcoming parliamentary elections to be held next fall.
"Bargaining with them will be a problem for Musharraf, who has to rely on the parliament to indemnify his actions and endorse his constitutional formula," says one government official.
Ardeshir Cowasjee, a senior columnist who recently called the referendum a "charade" in the leading newspaper, Dawn, says Musharraf has more functional control of the Army and the political apparatus than his own personal role model, the late Turkish leader Kemal Ataturk.
Mr. Cowasjee says Ataturk could get away with brutally quelling opposition leaders and religious extremists, but Musharraf doesn't have that advantage.
"He can't take the mullahs overnight," says Cowasjee. "He can't just put 60 mullahs on a boat and sink them. Americans would be the first ones to complain if he did."