ISLAMABAD — Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s military ruler, has consolidated his rule with a controversial national referendum seeking a five-year term, but questions central to security interests in South Asia linger over the outlook for his nuclear-armed country.

In Pakistan’s 55-year history, the country’s military, which has been in charge roughly half the time, has often positioned itself to remain in control of politics even when it is out of power.

Like Musharraf, his two predecessors, Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq (1978-1988) and Gen. Mohammad Ayub Khan (1958-1969), chose to extend their rule through referendums in which they sought the public’s consent over whether they should continue in power. The fact that such referendums have been characterized as single-candidate elections has made them controversial.

As Pakistanis ponder the future of their country, the world at large must have reason to remain concerned over the security implications of a Pakistan headed for further uncertainty. Unlike in the past when many countries had uniformed leaders, today Pakistan is one of only a few such states as democracy spreads across the world.

Musharraf’s hand has been strengthened over the past few months with his decision to join the United States-led fight against global terrorism following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S.

Pakistan’s decision to back the U.S. fight against al-Qaeda forces in Afghanistan has been reciprocated in the form of Washington’s agreement to support billions of dollars worth of debt restructuring. Pakistan’s cooperation with the U.S. in apprehending members of al-Qaeda who flee Afghanistan may enable it to continue close ties with Washington.

Many see the referendum as a step backward from democracy and from the opportunities knocking on Pakistan’s door. The nation’s future will be affected by three key factors:

(1) Musharraf’s decision to extend his rule places the Pakistani military within the life of the country’s mainstream. For many countries, involvement of the military in politics has been controversial because professional standards are easily compromised. Once the military becomes attuned to running a country, it is difficult to persuade the generals to return their troops to the barracks.

While Musharraf has armed himself with the credentials of the presidency, he continues to remain the chief of the army staff, giving the military a direct involvement in running Pakistan.

(2) Pakistan’s economy remains central to its efforts to stabilize its outlook. For years, Pakistan’s economy remained tied to billions of dollars in foreign assistance from the West. The consequences of that flow along with the abuse of the state by successive regimes led to the country’s accumulating almost $64 billion in domestic and foreign debt.

Although Musharraf’s government has restructured billions of dollars in foreign debt recently, economic growth remains handicapped by drought and a poor response to the government’s invitation to investors. Pakistan’s periodic uncertainty makes it difficult for many investors to take long-term positions.

(3) Pakistan’s foreign relations in general and those with its neighbors in particular will have a significant impact on its future. To Musharraf’s credit goes the decision to make an abrupt change in the policy that supported Afghanistan’s former Taliban regime. The decision to join the U.S.-led coalition was an important first step toward eventually ridding Pakistan of years of deepening isolation.

But an intense military standoff with India, aggravated in the past few months, has unleashed a new security crisis for the two South Asian neighbors. Musharraf’s attempts to resume a dialogue with Delhi have so far been fraught with difficulty as the Indian government has insisted that Pakistan assist in stopping the flow of what it describes as cross-border militants into Kashmir, the state divided between the two countries.

Musharraf alone can not unlock the dilemma with India, but he can indeed work toward building international backing for bilateral dialogue. Success of such an effort will depend in part on the extent to which Pakistan can stabilize itself.

As Musharraf claims victory, many from the opposition parties are questioning his choice to stay on as president for another five years. The country’s history is a powerful reminder that military rulers find it next to impossible to return to civilian rule once they’re accustomed to the taste of political power.

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