Musharraf government declares victory

'Overwhelming majority' for President who back US anti-teror campaign
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The Independent Online

Pakistanis overwhelmingly approved another five years in office for President Pervez Musharraf, in a disputed referendum that supporters today claimed gave the president legitimacy but critics described as marred by ballot-stuffing and other gross irregularities.

The Information Minister Nisar Memon described the vote Tuesday as "a massive victory for the people of Pakistan."

"They were not affected by the negative propaganda of the opposition," he said of voters who cast ballots. "The opposition has been summarily rejected, and now they should accept the verdict of the people."

Pakistan television quoted him as putting the turnout at 50 per cent, even higher than the government's own optimistic projections of 40 per cent. "This is beyond our expectations," he said.

The vote was marred, however, by reports of irregularities, including people who said they had voted more than once under relaxed rules that ignored voter registration and greatly increased the number of voting stations.

By lowering the voting age to 18 from 21, the government added millions to the rolls, and many of the young adults who turned out were enthusiastic about Musharraf.

"All my friends like him," said college student Naveed Jamaltudent. "He is daring and bold."

Pakistani opposition forces accused the government of stuffing the ballot box, with Musharraf supporters at some polling stations allegedly stamping stacks of ballot papers to ensure his success.

"Tuesday's referendum was a fraud and the real turnout was the lowest in history," Amirul Azeem, spokesman for Pakistan's largest Islamic group Jamaat-e-Islami, told The Associated Press.

Respected analysts also found fault with the vote.

"There was no voters list, no polling agents, no question of verifying identities eligibility to vote," said Arif Nizami, editor of the independent national daily The Nation. "In some cases some of our reporters voted many times. The Election Commission was very lax. Even minors voted in some case."

The government claim was "way off the mark," but so were opposition figures as low as 2 per cent or 3 per cent, he said. "The truth lies somewhere in between but rather on the lower side."

Musharraf, the country's top general who seized power in a coup in 1999 and risked national outrage by siding with the United States in the Afghan war, had banked on Tuesday's referendum giving him a mandate to continue with economic and political reforms despite reports of irregularities during voting.

By late afternoon the Election Commission reported preliminary results from 82,555 of the country's 87,274 polling stations, with almost 98 per cent of voters favoring Musharraf. Musharraf had received 44,495,488 votes, and only 807,789 voted against him.

A turnout of 50 per cent, based on data with 75 per cent of returns received, would be well above the 38 per cent reported in the parliamentary elections of 1997.

Turnout was "much higher than the government's expectations," Memon said, dismissing earlier claims by rival politicians and hardline Islamic groups that the turnout was low and amounted to a rejection of Musharraf.

Aside from the controversy over irregularities, Musharraf's victory was widely expected, since the leaders of the main opposition parties - both charged with corruption - are outside Pakistan. Their parties boycotted the vote, demanding Musharraf step down and return the country to democracy.

Commentators called for Musharraf to move now to bring the country together.

"It would serve no purpose to continue the animosity and bitterness" resulting from the referendum, The News, a national daily, wrote in an editorial Wednesday.

Individual voters who supported Musharraf praised him for backing the U.S.-led war on terrorism, promoting economic stability and fighting corruption.

Salma Rahim, an Islamabad housewife, said Wednesday that her entire family voted for Musharraf.

"People are expecting big things from him," Rahim said. "Now he must prove himself and do something good for the country. He should take action against corrupt people and punish those who kill innocent people."

But others were disgruntled.

"Pervez Musharraf has no right to rule the country," said Razzaq Mahmood, a bearded middle-aged man. "All big political parties oppose him and only irrelevant politicians support him."

Syed Mansoor Hussain, a financial manager at a private firm, said like the 1997 elections, most people were indifferent.

"Things were premeditated," he said at a roadside restaurant in the capital, Islamabad. "But I don't think there were any massive irregularities in the voting.

"I didn't vote myself," he added. "I don't care who is president or prime minister. I never vote."

Despite being the chief of Pakistan's powerful military, which seized power from the democratically elected government, Musharraf campaigned like a politician.

He crisscrossed the country pumping hands, mingling with the people and putting up giant pictures of himself throughout the capital of Islamabad. He asked for a protracted term as president to allow him time to put in effect economic and political reforms.

Musharraf hoped a landslide win would silence critics of Pakistan's close cooperation with the United States in the war on terror and his crackdown on Islamic militancy in Pakistan.

His most vocal critics have been radical Islamic leaders, who have a following in the deeply conservative tribal belt that borders Afghanistan and who supported that country's deposed Taliban.

Those groups tried to organize demonstrations against the war on terror and Musharraf. Rarely did they gather more than a few thousand people.

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