President Frederik de Klerk of South Africa, in a daring challenge to his right-wing critics, announced Thursday that he will hold a nationwide referendum for white voters to test support for his apartheid reform program _ and promised his government would resign if he loses.
The balloting, which de Klerk said will be held within six weeks, may be the most important in modern South African history.
A defeat for de Klerk would bring down his presidency, end the 2-year-old program to abolish racial separation _ known as apartheid _ and destroy the power-sharing talks begun with the black majority.
It also could plunge the country into chaos and violence if black nationalist organizations decide to challenge efforts to turn back the clock.
The unexpected announcement amounts to a showdown between de Klerk and the surging opposition among the 5-million whites to his program, particularly his negotiations with representatives of South Africa's 30-million blacks for a nonracial constitution.
"It is time to test the claim that the National Party and I do not any more represent the views of the white voter," he told the white chamber of Parliament in Cape Town. "We must settle this question now.
"If I lose that referendum," he added, "I will resign . . . and the National Party government will resign." Those resignations would force new white elections two years before they are legally required.
The president's decision came a day after a resounding defeat for his ruling National Party at the hands of the right-wing Conservative Party in a local parliamentary election, the third such loss in recent months.
It also followed suggestions of growing fear among whites _ both on the right wing and within de Klerk's own party _ who have been sheltered by the apartheid system and now face the prospect of a new constitution and a new government controlled by the black majority.
De Klerk, whose party has controlled South African politics for 44 years, has acknowledged the loss of some white supporters due to uncertainty about the future but also due to the economic recession, a devastating drought and skyrocketing crime rates.
The South African president did not say specifically what question he would put to white voters, but he said the issue is whether white voters want his government or the Conservatives to represent them in deciding the country's political future.
Most political analysts said Thursday that they believed the government could win any referendum for whites only; a recent public opinion poll showed that 58 percent of whites support apartheid reform.
But de Klerk has suffered a steady erosion of his support to the right-wing Conservatives, who now have at least a third of the white electorate on their side and claim they can win any referendum. The Conservatives, who refuse to live in a country governed by blacks and want a separate "homeland" for whites, are sure to pour substantial resources into the referendum.
Although de Klerk maintains that most whites still support his reform policies, the Conservatives charge that white voters who elected de Klerk in the first place never gave him a mandate for the changes he has made since coming to power in 1989. Those changes include:
Lifting bans against the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party.
Releasing thousands of political prisoners.
Repealing apartheid laws.
Negotiating a new constitution to share power with blacks. Blacks still have no say in national politics and have no vote.
The Conservatives have demanded that de Klerk call a new parliamentary election, something he is not legally obligated to do until 1993.
It was a combative de Klerk who challenged the right-wing Conservative Party Thursday to a referendum duel. Win the referendum, he taunted Conservatives, "and you can have your election. The referendum will determine who the white voters want to represent them" in negotiations with the black majority, de Klerk said. "There it is on the table."
Political analysts saw de Klerk's decision as a risky but necessary bit of brinkmanship. His mandate to negotiate the future of privileged whites with the black majority was being called into question, even as the negotiating forum, the Convention for a Democratic South Africa, was beginning to make progress. He needed to renew that mandate to justify his role as the chief spokesman for South Africa's whites.
The Conservative Party accepted the challenge and vowed to prove that de Klerk did not have a mandate to share power with blacks or grant them a vote in national affairs.
"The CP will accept your challenge," party spokesman Casper Uys told de Klerk. "We have faith in the good judgment of the white man in South Africa. The Afrikaner (South African of Dutch ancestry) will reject you . . . because the Afrikaner nation is not willing to commit suicide."
_ Information from the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Associated Press and Baltimore Sun was used in this report.