Musharraf wins big in disputed referendum

By Peter Popham & Agencies
Publication Date: 
Thu, 2002-05-02 03:00

ISLAMABAD, 2 May — Pakistan’s self-appointed President Pervez Musharraf has won an extraordinary endorsement of his rule in this week’s referendum, gaining 97 percent of votes polled and inducing twice as many people to vote as turned out in the last general election.

Alternatively, according to the political parties, the general who seized power in a coup two-and-a-half years ago has perpetrated a massive fraud on the Pakistani people and has committed "the biggest political mistake since he took office." Take your pick.

Yesterday the head of Pakistan’s supposedly independent Election Commission, Irshad Hassan Khan, reported that 42.8 million of the nearly 62 million-strong electorate had voted "yes" in Tuesday’s exercise, as opposed to fewer than 900,000 voting no and fewer than 300,000 who spoiled their papers. This worked out to a voter turnout of over 70 percent.

This gave Musharraf a fabulous 97 percent of votes in his favor — up there with the results in single candidate elections in the former Soviet Union.

Maj. Gen. Rashid Quereshi, Musharraf’s spokesman, said "I must congratulate the people of Pakistan because the earlier disenchantment with political parties and voting has given way to enthusiasm and a desire to contribute to the wellbeing of the country." But the mainstream political parties, sidelined since the coup, and which overwhelmingly opposed the referendum, rejected the general’s claim angrily. And the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan was equally scathing. "It was farcical," said the commission’s director, I.A. Rehman. "The question of turnout is totally irrelevant because everywhere the votes were stuffed."

Musharraf, criticized internationally after seizing power in a bloodless coup in October 1999, has since become something of a darling to the West and a key US ally in the global war on terror.

The turnout at the last parliamentary election, in 1997, was under 36 percent and the results might surprise independent observers who said polling stations were largely quiet in the country’s two biggest cities, Karachi and Lahore.

"We reject this," Farhatullah Babar, a spokesman for exiled former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto said shortly after the official results were announced on state television. "The turnout was not more than five percent. The Musharraf regime has decidedly massively rigged the referendum vote."

The government said political parties had decided the turnout would be low before the referendum even began, and were sticking to that position in the face of the evidence. "People have given their verdict and if political forces do not accept it, it will be a negation of democracy," Information Minister Nisar Memon told Pakistan Television. Musharraf argued he needed a popular mandate to stay in power and ensure his economic and political reforms were not reversed after parliamentary elections scheduled for October.

Although he is genuinely popular among many sections of the population for his efforts to stamp out corruption, his critics say he used state machinery to ensure a resounding referendum victory.

Journalists saw evidence of public sector workers being pressured to vote in an apparent effort to bolster the turnout, and, in one instance, saw ballot boxes being stuffed by officials and local government officers.

The United States has refrained from criticizing the referendum, but Commonwealth Secretary-General Don McKinnon said Pakistan would be monitored and discussed at the next Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group meeting. "The Commonwealth would be concerned if the referendum...were used to entrench any undemocratic form of government," he said in a statement released in London. "We wish to see a full return to constitutional rule in Pakistan."

Pakistan was suspended from the Commonwealth, a grouping of former British colonies, after Musharraf’s coup.

In a preliminary report on Tuesday, the human rights group HRCP said voting irregularities "exceeded its worst fears", and political parties said the final results were not credible.

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