Pakistanis snub Musharraf bid for respectability

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The Independent Online

Pakistan's military ruler and self-appointed President, General Pervez Musharraf, submitted to his first democratic test of popularity yesterday but, after referendum polls closed, his henchmen were widely divided on the success of the exercise.

Major-General Rashid Qureshi, the general's spokes-man, declared there had been "an unprecedented turn-out ... well above 45 to 50 per cent, a huge turn-out, more than any election we've ever had".

But Nisar Memon, General Musharraf's Information Minister, apparently preparing the nation for a very different outcome when the figures are published today, insisted even 25 per cent would be enough. "We believe that a voters' turn-out of 25 per cent and above will represent a widespread public support for the President's economic and political reforms," he said.

Early returns showed General Musharraf moving toward an overwhelming victory. With 2,356,298 votes counted from 4,574 polling stations, 2,182,539 ballots supported extending the President's term. Only 64,603 were against. The rest were ruled invalid.

There were reports of irregularities, with people voting more than once and only the flimsiest of identification shown to cast a ballot. Voters were supposed to provide drivers' licences and other photo identification, but at one polling station officials accepted a handwritten note from a woman with her name written on it.

Elsewhere, Mohammed Farid said he washed off the ink mark on his thumb, which referendum organisers said was indelible, to vote a second time. Another voter, Mohammed Sajjid, voted four times at different polling stations and said not once was his thumb marked with indelible ink. "Me and my friend voted four times. Each time they just wrote down my identity card number and nothing else," he said. The election commission had done away with registration lists.

The referendum asked: "Do you want to elect President General Pervez Musharraf for the next five years as President of Pakistan?" and implied that a "yes" vote would be a vote for the restoration of democracy, continued reforms and the "elimination of sectarianism and extremism". Voters could say "no" but a boycott of the referendum by an alliance of opposition parties almost guaranteed that most people bothering to vote would back the President. If the turn-out proves to have been as low as 25 per cent, however, the President's cheerleaders will have a hard time depicting the result as anything but a thumbs-down by the Pakistani people to the prospect of another five years of de facto military dictatorship.

Beset by the hostility to the referendum of all the main political forces, General Musharraf did everything in his power to ensure things went his way ­ the goalposts as wide as could be arranged, the playing field given the tilt of the slopes of K2. Electoral registers were temporarily abolished and Pakistan's 60 million voters were told they could vote wherever they chose. The voting age was abruptly lowered to 18. The number of polling stations was doubled, and some were set up in workplaces. Buses to and from polling stations were laid on at government expense.

Each voter had to show identification before stepping behind a screen and marking her ballot paper. Many of those casting their votes were government employees and needed little prompting to extol the virtues of General Musharraf. In an attempt to enthuse the population, the capital, Islamabad, has taken on a festive air in recent days with pictures of the President bedecking buildings and attached to every lamp-post. An army lorry adorned with flags drove along Jinnah Avenue, the city's main thoroughfare, blaring patriotic music.

At one polling station,Syed Mohammad Anas, director of a teacher training institute, said: "I want to vote for the President because he is an honest man. Whether it is a parliament or a dictatorship we want honest people to work."

Two young men shopping at a market said they would not vote. "Musharraf is not a properly elected President," Shumail Mehboob said. "When someone comes to power he does whatever he feels like doing."

General Musharraf has accepted a Supreme Court ruling that a general election must be held in October, heralding the formal return of democracy. But he has decided to remain the ruler of the country for at least another five years, and endorsement in the referendum would enable him to do this.

A good referendum result would also draw the sting of his foreign critics.