Fraud Alleged in Pakistan Referendum
%mlink(STRY:; PHOTO:ISL106-050102; AUDIO:%)
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) _ Allegations of widespread fraud followed a referendum that extended the rule of Pakistan’s military leader by five more years.
In a challenge that could hurt the key U.S. ally’s bid to strengthen authority, critics who questioned the credibility of the voting pounced on the final figures published Wednesday _ showing 97.7 backed Musharraf and putting the turnout at over 50 percent.
Musharraf, the country’s top general, seized power in a coup in 1999 and risked national outrage by siding with the United States in the Afghan war. He had hoped Tuesday’s referendum would give him an undisputed mandate to concentrate on attracting foreign investment, improving the domestic economy and curbing lawlessness, including keeping radical Islamic elements in check.
Information Minister Nisar Memon described the vote as ``a massive victory for the people of Pakistan.″
But Asma Jehangir, representative of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, accused referendum organizers loyal to the military government of tolerating widespread cheating, including permitting people to vote several times. Others, she said, were coerced into voting.
Jehangir said 10 teams from her organization visited about 150 polling stations throughout the country and videotaped evidence of people voting several times, casting ballots without producing identification and not getting stamped with the indelible ink that was supposed to prevent voting more than once.
Among those she said were ``coerced″ into voting were prisoners, civil servants and employees of businesses close to the government.
She said her organization would expose the alleged fraud to the international community, instead of challenging results in front of the Supreme Court, which last week ruled the referendum legal.
The court ``is subservient to the military government,″ along with the electoral commission that ``by design, rigged″ the vote, she alleged.
The commission lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, giving millions of youths normally supportive of Musharraf a vote. It also set up thousands of polling stations in hospitals, prisons, gas stations and other unorthodox places, in a bid to counter opposition efforts to lower turnout by calling for boycotts.
``The whole thing has been a humiliating fraud,″ Jengahir said.
The country of 140 million normally has 70 million eligible voters which would have put turnout at more than 60 percent, but that does not take into account the millions enfranchised by the special ruling lowering the voting age.
``All my friends like him,″ said one youthful voter, college student Naveed Jamal. ``He is daring and bold.″
A turnout of 50 percent would be well above the 38 percent reported in the parliamentary elections of 1997.
Pakistani opposition forces accused the government of stuffing the ballot box, with Musharraf supporters at some polling stations allegedly stamping stacks of ballot papers to ensure his success.
``Tuesday’s referendum was a fraud and the real turnout was the lowest in history,″ Amirul Azeem, spokesman for Pakistan’s largest Islamic group Jamaat-e-Islami, told The Associated Press.
Independent analysts also criticized the referendum.
``There was no voters list, no polling agents, no question of verifying eligibility to vote,″ said Arif Nizami, editor of the independent national daily The Nation. ``In some cases, some of our reporters voted many times. The Election Commission was very lax. Even minors voted in some cases.″
Memon said allegations of irregularities had not been verified and were exaggerated. Although isolated incidents were possible, they did not reflect government policy and did not affect the overall result of the referendum, he said.
Musharraf’s victory was widely expected, since the leaders of the main opposition parties _ both charged with corruption _ are outside Pakistan. Their parties boycotted the vote, demanding Musharraf step down and return the country to democracy.
Individual voters who supported Musharraf praised him for backing the U.S.-led war on terrorism, promoting economic stability and fighting corruption.
Salma Rahim, an Islamabad housewife, said Wednesday that her entire family voted for Musharraf.
``People are expecting big things from him,″ Rahim said. ``Now he must prove himself and do something good for the country. He should take action against corrupt people and punish those who kill innocent people.″
But others were disgruntled. Musharraf’s most vocal critics have been radical Islamic leaders, who have a following in the deeply conservative tribal belt that borders Afghanistan and who supported that country’s deposed Taliban, as well as political rivals.
``He should quit,″ said Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan, head of a 15-party alliance opposed to Musharraf and challenging the legality of referendum results.