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Pakistan: Opposition, Observers Critical Of Official Referendum Results

Official results from the 30 April referendum in Pakistan show General Pervez Musharraf has the backing of voters to extend his self-declared presidency by five years. But opposition political parties, as well as many independent observers and foreign journalists, say there are signs of fraud and vote-rigging.

Prague, 2 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- There are allegations of widespread fraud and vote rigging in the referendum that has extended the presidential rule of Pakistan's General Pervez Musharraf by five more years.

Election officials in Islamabad say Musharraf -- the military ruler who seized power through a bloodless coup in October 1999 -- was supported by 97.5 percent of the 44 million votes that were cast in the 30 April poll.

Those figures -- reported by Chief Election Commissioner Irshad Hassan Khan -- represent a turnout of about two-thirds of Pakistan's eligible voters. Despite a boycott of the referendum by opposition parties, the turnout figures are nearly double the number of voters seen in Pakistan's last two general elections.

Opposition leaders say their boycott campaign was a success. They allege the results have been falsified and are demanding Musharraf's immediate resignation. Pakistan's Information Ministry denies any election improprieties.

Raza Rabbani, the acting secretary-general of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, says only about 5 percent of Pakistan's voters took part in the ballot. Other opposition leaders say the turnout was not higher than 10 percent of eligible voters.

Rabbani says Musharraf should step down immediately on the grounds that he has neither the moral or political authority to continue.

Farhatullah Babar, a spokesman for the Pakistan People's Party, also rejected the results as "massively rigged by the government."

Babar said Musharraf has lost his credibility as a result of the vote and that he can never be considered a legitimately elected leader.

Qazi Hussain Ahmed, leader of Pakistan's main fundamentalist party Jamaat-i-Islami, rejected the official results as a "sham." Ahmed says the election commissioner should resign for announcing what he called "fake and exaggerated" results.

But Information Minister Nisar Memon rejects these criticisms as "hilarious." Memon says the people of Pakistan have given a verdict that supports Musharraf as president. He said those who do not accept the official results are not supporters of democracy.

Election Commission spokesman Ghazni Khan said allegations of election fraud are a normal part of political activity in Pakistan. He said the election commission has not received any evidence that supports the fraud allegations.

Nevertheless, the relatively high turnout figures and near unanimous support for Musharraf surprised many neutral observers who monitored the vote. Among them are foreign journalists who reported seeing little activity at polling stations in major cities like Karachi and Lahore, where support for the opposition is strong.

Some Western journalists reported seeing election officials who allowed voters to cast ballots even though their hands were marked with ink indicating that they'd already voted at least once before.

Other independent observers say the referendum has serious implications for the parliamentary elections that Musharraf has promised for October in order to restore what he calls "genuine democracy" in Pakistan.

Afrasiab Khattak, chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, says there were flagrant abuses of election procedures that "degraded the very concept of democratic choice." He says the referendum casts "ominous shadows" over Pakistan's path to democratic revival.

Khattak said observers from his commission witnessed one electoral official being beaten for refusing to stuff ballot boxes. He says basic procedures necessary to ensure a fair ballot were ignored. He also says observers saw Musharraf's supporters being encouraged to vote several times. Khattak's commission also supports media reports that the actual voter turnout appeared to be much lower than official results suggest.

Musharraf's allies said before the referendum that turnout of about 30 percent -- an amount equal to the voting activity seen during Pakistan's last general election -- was necessary to bring credibility to the referendum.

In fact, with a victory for Musharraf generally seen as a foregone conclusion, it was the voter turnout that was being closely watched as a measure of Musharraf's actual support in Pakistan.

When questioned yesterday about the relatively high voter turnout and near total support for Musharraf, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher would neither support the fraud allegations nor offer congratulatory remarks for Musharraf.

Instead, Boucher said Washington was unable to verify the results announced by Pakistan's Election Commission.

Boucher said the most crucial element in returning Pakistan to democratic rule will be the regional and national elections in October. He said it is up to the people of Pakistan to judge what the referendum means in terms of returning the country to democratic civilian rule.