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Wednesday, 1 May, 2002, 20:43 GMT 21:43 UK
Controversy mars Pakistan poll
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By Zaffar Abbas
BBC correspondent in Islamabad

General Pervez Musharraf's victory in the controversial referendum was never in doubt.

With the opposition parties having decided to stay away from what they called an unconstitutional exercise, he was certain to win with a thumping majority.

But soon after the referendum and even before the announcement of the official results, the whole exercise was marred by a controversy over the voters' turnout and reports of irregularities, with government officials and opposition parties making diametrically opposite claims.

The official Election Commission of Pakistan says 43.9 million people exercised their right to vote, out of which 42.8 million voted in President Musharraf's favour.

Officials count votes in Islamabad
There is confusion over the number of eligible voters

But even the commission has refrained from giving the exact percentage of the polled votes, mainly because of the discrepancy in its own assessment of the total number of voters and the one now being projected by the government's department of registration, Nadra.

The commission had earlier given the number of eligible voters as 61.93 million.

If this is to be believed, the turnout goes up to 70% - the highest in any election in the country.

But the Nadra chief says that according to the last census of 1998, the total number of people above the age of 18 years is 78.3 million, which makes the turnout to be around 56%.

And this confusion in statistics is likely to give more fuel to the opposition parties to undermine this referendum.

Multiple voting

Statements issued by different groups have described the turnout as extremely poor, with former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party calling it a victory of the democracy-loving people of Pakistan.

"Today the people have spoken, as clearly and loudly as never before, to the lasting embarrassment of dictators anywhere that they reject dictatorship and will not accept anything less than democracy and constitutional rule," says the statement.

The people were given an experience that casts ominous shadows on their path to democratic revival

Human Rights Commission report

Although all the newspapers in the country have carried the official version about the high turnout, several of them have also published details of widespread irregularities, with eyewitness accounts of deserted polling stations in several towns and cities.

But perhaps the harshest criticism of the polling procedure has come from the country's independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).

In its interim report on the referendum, the HRCP says the irregularities witnessed during the referendum exceeded its worst fears.

While describing the "voluntary turnout" as very low, the commission says the vast majority of voters fell in the category of "captive voters".

These are public sector workers who are obliged to vote and include prisoners, government employees and members of the local councils.

It says the women mostly stayed away from polling, and "the voters marshalled by local councillors enjoyed the freedom to vote as many times as they wished".

The HRCP's report says it is of the view that apart from anything else the manner in which the people were hustled into voting and the flagrant abuse of election procedures degraded the very concept of democratic choice.

People have given their verdict and those who do not accept this are not supporters of democracy

Information Minister Nisar Memon

"The people were given an experience that casts ominous shadows on their path to democratic revival," says the report.

But a senior government minister has rejected such claims.

Information Minister Nisar Memon termed the opposition parties' statements about low turnout as part of a pre-conceived plan, accused the newspaper reports about irregularities and lacklustre atmosphere to be devoid of objectivity, and described the HRCP's report to be based on description given by only a few people.

In fact, Mr Memon said the public response has been much more than what was being anticipated by him.

This, according to him, is an open endorsement by the people of President Musharraf and his reform agenda.

Long shadow

The outcome of the referendum has entitled General Musharraf to remain the country's president for five more years.

He now intends to go ahead with his plan to introduce wide-ranging political reforms.

These include some amendments in the constitution to give the president the power to dissolve parliament, and to bring in a National Security Council, where the armed forces chiefs along with the president and the prime minister, are likely to sit in judgement on the performance of the government and the parliament.

Critics say even though many people in the country believe there is a need to introduce some changes in the political system, the way General Musharraf has tried to get the endorsement through an ill-planned referendum makes the move highly controversial.

In fact, some observers say the present referendum reminds them of a similar exercises carried out by a former military ruler, General Zia ul-Haq, in 1984, when manipulations at official level transformed a turnout of less than 10% into a huge success.

And even though General Musharraf is all set to remain the president even after the next parliamentary elections in October this year, results of the controversial referendum may continue to cast its shadow on his presidency.

The BBC's Adam Mynott
"President Musharraf has secured over 90% of the vote"
Asad Hayauddin, Pakistani embassy spokesman
"There is recourse for any grievances to be addressed"
See also:

01 May 02 | South Asia
Analysis: Musharraf wins round one
29 Apr 02 | South Asia
Pakistan's ignored voters
29 Apr 02 | South Asia
Pakistan prepares to vote
28 Apr 02 | South Asia
Musharraf 'ready' for another term
22 Apr 02 | South Asia
Court examines Musharraf poll
05 Apr 02 | South Asia
Analysis: Musharraf's referendum gamble
03 Apr 02 | South Asia
Musharraf goes for 'Zia option'
03 Apr 02 | South Asia
Musharraf poll approved
29 Apr 02 | South Asia
Q&A: Pakistan referendum
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