In the aftermath of the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD), there was unrelenting pressure on Chief Martial Law Administrator (CMLA) General Ziaul Haq to relinquish and transfer power. By the beginning of 1984, even the general’s friends in the army began pressing him to adopt certain measures which could help the country return to normalcy. It was time to act.

There were two schools of thought: the first favoured seeking legitimacy from the people for Gen Zia, and towards this end they wanted him to hold a referendum. The second opinion was to hold elections and hand over power to the elected representatives.

As always, Gen Zia was averse to holding elections; the general had made it abundantly clear that were his administration to go down that route, he favoured non-party elections. But before any polls, he insisted on holding a referendum to elicit people’s will.


When it was time to secure another five years for the general, his team tied his continuation in power to the salvation of Islam and the preservation of Pakistan


Political circles immediately opposed this suggestion, and reminded the general that it was him and his friends in the army who had opposed Bhutto’s decision to conduct a referendum during the PNA agitation. But elsewhere, there was growing support for the referendum option.

In a meeting of martial law administrators (MLAs) on Nov 6, 1984, it was resolved that the referendum would be held on Dec 19, 1984. Gen Zia announced the decision on Dec 1 to the general populace.

Now came the most crucial phase of the process: crafting the question that was to be put before the public.

This process required a tricky question, asking the voter whether they wanted to support Islamisation and, therefore, want Gen Zia to continue for another five years after Martial Law was lifted. What was eventually crafted linked the general to the salvation of Islam and preservation of Pakistan: “Do you endorse the process initiated by the President of Pakistan, General Mohammad Ziaul Haq, for bringing the laws of Pakistan in conformity with the injunctions of Islam as laid down in the Holy Quran and Sunnah of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) and for the preservation of the ideology of Pakistan, and are you in favour of continuation and further consolidation of that process and for the smooth and orderly transfer of power to the elected representatives of the people.”

The question sought a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer — affirmative replies would mean support for Gen Zia to continue as president till 1990.

The martial law administrators all knew that if arrangements were not undertaken to get a ‘Yes’ vote, the scheme might backfire. The governors were therefore asked to do everything in their control to prop support for the general. Meanwhile, Gen Zia would undertake visits to all provincial capitals and also address the nation on radio and television.

In his address, Gen Zia announced that national identity cards would be a must for voting. But due to flawed policies, not all citizens possessed identity cards. The issue was re-examined by the officials concerned, and two days before polling, the condition of producing a national identity card to vote in the referendum was waived.


The MRD and other parties boycotted the referendum. Polling stations on the day wore a deserted look but when the results were announced, it was claimed that the general had bagged more than 60 per cent votes and was thus elected for another five years after the lifting of martial law.


The MRD and other parties boycotted the referendum. Polling stations on the day wore a deserted look but when the results were announced, it was claimed that the general had bagged more than 60 per cent votes and was thus elected for another five years after the lifting of martial law.

With his power seemingly reinforced, the general was now confronted by another promise he had made during the MRD campaign on Aug 12, 1983: conducting general elections in February 1985. Towards this end, began an exercise aimed at reducing the vote bank of the PPP and other leftist parties. He did not want any move which diluted his political philosophy.

shaikhaziz38@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, August 2nd, 2015

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