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Thursday, 2 May, 2002, 12:29 GMT 13:29 UK
Pakistan referendum: BBC correspondent Susannah Price
The BBC's correspondent in Islamabad, Susannah Price, answered your questions on the election in a LIVE forum.

  Click here to watch the forum.  

The people of Pakistan are voting on whether President Musharraf should be allowed to stay in power for another five years.

Turnout has been patchy, and in some areas people appear to have observed an opposition call to boycott the referendum.

It is the first time a vote has been held without declaring a public holiday, and there are polling booths inside factories and other workplaces, and at markets.

However, there are no voter lists or constituencies, and anyone who can prove their identity and age can go to any polling station.

Critics say the system will make it easy for people to vote more than once.

But is a referendum the right way to decide on the future of Pakistan?



President Musharraf is almost certain to remain in power for another five years in Pakistan. The country has just held a referendum on the president's future and it appears those who voted want him to continue in office. But the opposition say turnout was very low. General Musharraf seized power two years ago in a bloodless coup. So what does this mean for the future of Pakistan? Well, to tell us more we're joined from Pakistan by our correspondent Susannah Price. Susannah before we go on to the e-mails, I would just like to ask you a little bit about the vote itself and this referendum. Presumably voters were just able to choose to support or not to support President Musharraf?

Susannah Price:

Yes, that's right. It was basically a one candidate referendum and the question was 'Do you want President Musharraf to continue in office for the next five years?' And it was a simple yes or no. The voters went into the polling station, they either marked the yes or no, and that was basically it. The ballot papers were collected and they are being counted. A very simple procedure, really, and of course the critics say it's lack of any alternative and the lack, especially, of any alternative candidate gave General Musharraf a huge advantage.


I'm sure we'll probably return to that in a moment with our e-mails. But let's turn straight away to the e-mails. I've got one here from Jared in the UK, who asks what was the overall turnout at the polls and how does this reflect President Musharraf's popularity, or indeed lack of it, in the wake of this referendum?

Susannah Price:

Well the turnout has been one of the major issues, probably the key issue in this whole referendum because no one doubted that General Musharraf would win the referendum. But people said the turnout would be the great indication as to whether or not he had a popular mandate. Now the government, the authorities, say it was an excellent turnout, it was larger than any previous election, and that he has got a huge mandate from the people to carry on with his economic and political reforms.

What the opposition say is that the turnout was very poor and very low. The opposition in fact called for a boycott, so they would watch the turnout very carefully and take indications that there weren't many people turning out as a suggestion of support for the opposition. We talked to human rights groups here and they also say that the turnout of those voluntarily going to vote was low. But what the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said is that it found a lot of people, government employees, and factory workers who were actually instructed to go and vote and they may well have helped to swell the numbers.

It must be said we went to polling stations here in Islamabad and we saw quite a mixed bag. In one, we were there just before the polls opened, there were just four or five people, the second we went to was completely deserted. But the third one which was closer to a shopping centre and also to the law courts, there were about a queue of 15 to 20 people. So I think the busier polling stations you found around the shopping areas, around the places where people worked, because of course it was an ordinary working day here. This was one of the innovations brought in by President Musharraf. It wasn't declared a holiday. So people were in town, they were out and about and that may have given them a greater incentive to vote.


An interesting point which is connected to the ones you have just made is made by Ahmed Nadeem in Virginia, in the USA and they say, has the President's unpopularity been overstated, bearing in mind that turnout has always been low in Pakistani elections?

Susannah Price:

Well definitely the authorities were trying to point this out in the lead up to the referendum. They've said we shouldn't judge it by Western standards. That turnout in Pakistani elections has traditionally been 40 per cent, falling to somewhere in the 30s, in the last election and that that would be considered a good turnout. Of course it's difficult to gauge whether his unpopularity has been overstated. I think it may well have seemed that this referendum was a turning point for some people. I think President Musharraf did have a lot of support, a lot for his various policies but people especially I think liberal, middle-class people, from places such as Islamabad, really felt that the referendum was a step too far. And that's when you found them maybe changing their minds.


There's a question here from Munriz in the USA, and they ask was the polling conducted in a fair manner at the polling stations you visited?

Susannah Price:

Well, we went to three polling stations here in Islamabad and it must be said it was basic, but basically we didn't see any cheating in the ones we went to. They were in kind of makeshift tents made of colourful material. It didn't look terribly private, although there was an area at the back where you could go and vote. The ballot boxes looked like they were sealed. But my colleague, Adam Mynott, who went down to Lahore, said he saw many instances of multiple voting.

What was supposed to happen was that people when they wanted to vote, and they could vote anywhere, simply had to show an identity card or another document and they would then have their thumb marked with indelible ink. This was supposed to be, if they tried to get back again, they would then be immediately identified as somebody who had already voted. Now apparently people were, in some cases, not getting their thumb marked, they were hiding that thumb when they went back, or they were even washing off the indelible ink. And so they were able to go back. And we have had various reports, first hand reports, from correspondents of things like that happening.

The other concerns come from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, they also say they had reports from their monitors of various cases of multiple voting and also they cite cases of the actual polling officials inside the polling stations marking the ballot papers themselves. Now what the government has said, it said it will investigate these reports. It says there could be a few, they would be massively overstated, and it says that it doesn't feel that any irregularities that are found would substantially change the outcome of the referendum.


Susannah, I want to move onto the role of the opposition now, we've got an e-mail from Mujahid Zafar, from Medina, in Saudi Arabia and they say it seems that even before this referendum took place the opposition parties were planning to thwart this exercise by claiming it to be illegal and asking people to abstain. Why didn't the opposition launch a legitimate campaign for a no vote?

Susannah Price:

That's an interesting question and of course people are saying that a no vote, as we speak they are talking about two per cent for the no vote, and the opposition are saying that's because they asked people to boycott the polls. The opposition all along has said this referendum is illegal and unconstitutional. They say under the constitution the president should be chosen after October's elections, as normally happens.

What usually happens is the president is chosen by the members of the National and Provincial Assemblies and the Senate. The opposition claims that the president was too scared, didn't feel confident enough to go for that option, couldn't guarantee he would be elected in that case and preferred to use the state machinery to help him in a referendum which would be easier to win. They are declaring it was unconstitutional, the opposition, and other interest groups have done, including lawyers who went to the Supreme Court. But the Supreme Court found that it was constitutional and it could go ahead. So what the opposition then said was that we still don't recognise this as constitutional, we don't want to get involved in the process in any way. They said they believed the figures were being massaged anyway and so they felt the best thing to do and the most obvious sign of dissent would be to keep people away from the polling stations altogether and that's why they didn't want to get involved.


You've just answered a question, Tariq Ansari of Karachi, asks exactly that question. Let's move on to Faisal Ghafoor from Pakistan. He asks, don't you think that the outcome of this referendum mattered little, as it was simply a token gesture and a feeble attempt on the part of the president to legitimise his status as leader of Pakistan? Wouldn't he have stayed in power anyway, regardless of the outcome?

Susannah Price:

Well it's been an interesting progression with President Musharraf. When he took power two and a half years ago, in this bloodless coup, he said that his main aims were simply to restore democracy. And he very much dismissed suggestions that he might want to say on in power. He talked very much about being a military man and doing his duty to bring back democracy to Pakistan. Now that does seem to have altered over the time. And now what he's saying is that he's started a programme of reform and he wants to carry it on. Now he has been in power for two and a half years without having any mandate from the people and what he said was that he wanted to get the people's agreement to continue. But he did also say that he wasn't someone to take unnecessary risks and this was very much a calculated risk, so I think President Musharraf along with everyone else knew he was going to win this referendum and if he thought there was any chance he wasn't going to win the referendum, then I don't think he would have held it. He might as well have gone through the normal route, being chosen, or trying to be chosen, after October's elections.

Another quite interesting point is that just before the referendum, President Musharraf was asked if he would go for another term in office after he'd completed this five years, if he's won the referendum, and what he said was if the people wanted him he might consider it. So he's very much looking now I think to the longer term, he is showing, I think, he has these longer term ambitions. People are also concerned, I think, about how much power will be centred on the post of president. In the past it has been quite a powerful position. The president has had the power to dismiss governments, and has carried that out. But in more recent years, he's been more of a figurehead. Now what President Musharraf, I think, who had been looking for the endorsement from the referendum, wants to carry out some constitutional reforms. And some of those may well involve strengthening his position, again giving him the power to dissolve the Assemblies, possibly reducing the number of years that Parliament sits, from five years to maybe four years, or three years. And I think people will be watching that very closely to see if he really now becomes much more than a figurehead and if he tries to really become the power base in the country.


I've got an e-mail here from Imran Ahmed, from Karachi in Pakistan who appears to be a supporter of the President, because he asks will the Western world finally accept the outcome of this referendum as proof of the legitimacy of a leader it openly labelled a dictator before the 11th of September?

Susannah Price:

Well of course it has been very interesting watching the changing Western attitude towards President Musharraf. The coup was very widely condemned. Pakistan was suspended from the Commonwealth, there were many calls for an immediate return to democracy, and in the period following the coup Pakistan was very much ostracised. There were very few visitors, even when President Clinton came he didn't stay here very long. I think a lot of Pakistanis thought the West was moving towards India, their old rival, and really Pakistan was being sidelined. September 11th, of course, changed all that.

President Musharraf abandoned Pakistan's support for the Taleban, moved very quickly to express his wholehearted backing for the American-led coalition, and even offered some help. And since then we've seen this incredible stream of visitors here to Pakistan, including the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, everybody coming here not really mentioning the question of democracy, just very keen to congratulate President Musharraf and it was notable I think even in the lead up to this referendum, there was very muted criticism from abroad. There were expressions of concern, but no real condemnation and I think the fact that President Musharraf is now being on-side means that most countries in the West will now say, allright, we'll give him to October, he must carry out elections as promised and if he does that then I think they will stop the heavy criticism that we saw at the beginning because of the coup.


We've got an interesting connected point here from Asad Ali Khan, from Woodbridge, New Jersey, in the United States, and they ask do you think that the support that the President receives from the West contributed to his latest success?

Susannah Price:

Well it is an interesting question because of course Pakistan was divided about their support for the anti-Taleban alliance. There were a lot of hardliners who very much opposed that. But I think a lot of Pakistanis were relieved that Pakistan had abandoned the Taleban. They felt that they were quite a liability and they did leave Pakistan as an outcast. So I think in that way probably President Musharraf did get some support from that. However, I think Pakistanis felt they really deserved more material benefit from the West. In fact they changed their policy, they've fallen into line.

It has been very difficult for President Musharraf to win over, especially the hardliners, and he certainly hasn't won over a lot of the extremists, and I think they feel in return they haven't really seen a lot of help from the West. So although it's an interesting point, and it's something I think people have different views on, I think it probably wasn't the key issue in this referendum. There are related matters, though, that people are very interested in and I think one of those is President Musharraf's pledge to crack down on Islamic extremism and there's been a lot of sectarian violence, for example, in this country which has left a lot of people dead. There's been ethnic violence, and he has outlawed certain groups, he has detained extremists. And I think many people here are very pleased to see that, they think that violence has pulled Pakistan apart for too long and they would really like to see him continue in that policy.


OK, I've got one last question here from Shahrukh, who is e-mailing us from Lahore in Pakistan and they ask if this will now cement the president's position of power for years to come, or can we expect to see open, free and fair elections in the near future?

Susannah Price:

Well this is of course the question everyone is asking. President Musharraf has said that he definitely will be holding elections in October. The Supreme Court after the coup ruled that he had to have elections within three years and so he has said he will go ahead with them and I think most people think he will. I think one of the questions that will come up will be how much power will the President have and how much power will the National Assembly have and I think that will be very crucial and of course the conduct of the elections will be very interesting, especially in the light of the various debates we've had over the conduct of this referendum.

So there will be many questions. We will now at last see politics begin to take up I think in Pakistan after two and half years where really there's been very little political action. We saw some rallies, President Musharraf in particular, addressed a lot of rallies before the referendum. The opposition was only allowed to hold one mass rally. I think we'll see more and more of that. We'll hear a lot of manoeuvring, a lot of parties changing sides. I think it will become very interesting in the lead-up to the elections. But we'll have to wait and see of course if everyone considers that they are free and fair.


Susannah Price in Pakistan, many thanks for joining us.

Musharraf's Pakistan

Democracy challenge

Militant threat




See also:

29 Apr 02 | South Asia
28 Apr 02 | South Asia
22 Apr 02 | South Asia
13 Mar 02 | South Asia
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