Tags: Musharraf | Okayed | for | New | Term

Musharraf Okayed for New Term

Wednesday, 01 May 2002 12:00 AM

On Wednesday, Pakistan television reported that three-fourths of the votes had been counted from the 87,000 polling stations across the country, and that the "yes" vote was 97 percent of the votes counted, according to the British Broadcasting Corp.

The opposition has refused to accept these results because it said the government had rigged the polling.

Information Minister Nasir Memon has urged the opposition to accept the results and "join the government's efforts to promote national consensus on major issues."

Musharraf had earlier appealed to the people to back his efforts to fight religious intolerance and to revive the national economy by voting for him in large numbers.

Musharraf's longer term was approved by almost 97 percent of the votes counted so far. However, Pakistanis apparently failed to heed his plea to give him a heavy mandate.

Journalists and neutral observers reported a low turnout throughout the country in balloting described as peaceful.

Musharraf grabbed power in a bloodless coup in October 1998, replacing then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif who, like his predecessor Benazir Bhutto, was generally perceived as corrupt and inefficient.

Rejected by most Western democracies, including the United States, for toppling an elected government, Musharraf was treated like an international pariah until the Sept. 11 terror attacks in New York and Washington.

He became instantly popular in the Western capitals by joining the U.S.-led war on terrorism and by ditching Pakistan's former Taliban allies.

But his pro-U.S. policies annoyed his country's religious lobbies, which led a campaign to persuade people to boycott Tuesday's referendum.

They were helped by the country's two main political parties -- People's Party and the Muslim League -- who are demanding a return to democracy.

Musharraf is pursuing corruption charges against People's Party's leader and former Prime Minister Bhutto, which earned him the wrath of both.

Musharraf announced the referendum on April 5, seeking to consolidate his grip on power before the October 2002 general elections mandated by the country's Supreme Court.

The Election Commission estimated that at least 30 percent of the voters participated in the referendum.

That percentage is lower than the 35 percent who cast ballots in the previous general election in 1997, but government officials said turnouts are usually higher in general elections because of the competition. Musharraf was the only candidate in Tuesday's referendum.

They also said that the Muslim League, which controlled two-thirds of the seats in the Parliament, had attracted only 16 percent of the total vote.

Opposition parties have rejected the official results as being exaggerated, with the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy putting the turnout at less than 5 percent.

"Most people responded to our call to boycott the referendum and stayed at home," said the alliance's chief, Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan. "Musharraf should now step down and let an interim government run the country till the October elections."

He said opposition parties were planning to meet in Islamabad next week to decide when to launch a campaign against Musharraf if he refuses to step down.

Musharraf has dismissed such demands as coming from "living-room parties who have no following," adding, "I am very confident."

"An overwhelming number of voters have voted for Musharraf," said an election official while briefing journalists in Islamabad. "In some areas, the "no" votes are not even in double figures.

The election official said he could not answer questions about alleged voting irregularities.

Neutral observers say both the opposition and the government are exaggerating. The turnout of voters, the observers said, was not as low as the opposition says and not as high as the governments wants them to believe.

The government had set up 87,000 polling stations to enable more than 60 million voters to cast their votes near their home or office. Some of the polling stations were set up at such unconventional places as gas stations and prisons.

The Election Commission also had reduced the voting age from 21 to 18, enlisting hundreds of thousands of young voters. On Monday, the commission also withdrew a restriction that prevented people without national identity cards from voting.

The move caused the opposition to accuse the government of rigging the referendum. Khan said at some places journalists saw polling officers stuffing ballots, adding, "the government has committed massive and institutionalized rigging."

He said the opposition will not accept official results because "they are being cooked at the Election Commission."

The information minister said the opposition had started crying foul even before the referendum was held because "they had already made up their minds to reject the results."

But the opposition was backed by the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, which said, "voting irregularities exceeded our worst fears." It said the voluntary turnout of voters was very low.

Buoyed by reports of a low turnout, Bhutto said she would soon return to Pakistan, ending her self-exile. "The time has come for our party to play its rule" in the struggle for the restoration of democracy, she said.

Copyright 2002 by United Press International.

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On Wednesday, Pakistan television reported that three-fourths of the votes had been counted from the 87,000 polling stations across the country, and that the yes vote was 97 percent of the votes counted, according to the British Broadcasting Corp. The opposition has...
Wednesday, 01 May 2002 12:00 AM
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