Musharraf claims mandate after vote

But critics allege Pakistani referendum was marred by fraud

May 02, 2002|By Paul Watson | Paul Watson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - President Pervez Musharraf claimed a powerful mandate from Pakistani voters yesterday while an independent human rights commission and opposition parties charged that a referendum on extending the army general's rule was marred by extensive fraud.

Nearly 98 percent of the ballots cast in Tuesday's referendum supported Musharraf's bid for five more years, said the country's chief election commissioner, Irshad Hassan Khan.

But opposition parties, the human rights commission and newspapers reported that ballot-box stuffing and other abuses were widespread.

About 42.8 million Pakistanis voted in favor of extending the term of Musharraf, who was the only one on the ballot, while 883,676 voted against that, the election commission said. About 282,935 ballots were spoiled. Voter turnout was almost 70 percent, it said.

Even Information Minister Nisar Memon said he found the turnout surprising because it has averaged only 40 percent in the past four elections between 1988 and 1997.

The many, serious possible irregularities mean that Musharraf's claim to a mandate "is very tainted," Afrasaib Khattak, head of the human rights commission, said in a telephone interview from Peshawar. "The turnout figure is grossly exaggerated. And the state machinery, the government institutions, have heavily intervened in favor of the president."

Memon accused opposition parties of trying to discredit the referendum by coming up with what he called ridiculous numbers to support their claim that 90 percent of voters boycotted the referendum.

"The opposition has been summarily rejected, and now they should accept the verdict of the people," he said.

The referendum has weakened rather than strengthened Musharraf's legitimacy among Pakistanis, Khattak said.

"I think he has lost the benefit of the doubt, which some people were prepared to give him initially," Khattak added.

Turnout estimates are at best a guess because there was no official voter list. The total electorate is estimated to be just under 62 million. But Musharraf lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, and the last national census was in 1998, so the precise number of eligible voters is unknown.

Musharraf also declared the whole country a single constituency so that people could vote anywhere they wanted. Also, he more than doubled the number of polling stations, which Khattak and other critics said opened the door to fraud.

Polling stations that served about 1,000 people had 3,000 ballots, he said.

"We have examples of people who have voted twice or thrice," said the human rights official. "And we have examples of stuffing ballot boxes by relevant authorities in stations where no one had voted at all."

Reports from several parts of the country said government workers had been ordered to vote for Musharraf, and they were transported to polling booths to ensure they did.

Memon, Musharraf's information minister, dismissed the reports as fabrications.

Paul Watson is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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