Low turnout for Musharraf referendum


PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- Here in North-West Frontier province, the vote for President Pervez Musharraf is yes.

It's yes in Punjab, too. Yes in Sindh. Yes in Balochistan.

As far as reporters around Pakistan could tell, almost nobody voted no.

Instead, voters stayed away from the polls in protest or apathy -- as many as 75 percent of them, according to Information Minister Nisar Memon.

Yesterday was the day General Musharraf, who seized power in a nonviolent coup in 1999, planned to legalize his leadership through a popular referendum. A yes vote, he said, would allow him to extend his presidency for five years, overriding any results of a parliamentary election scheduled for October.

Votes were still being counted late last night, but the result, it was evident, will be unclear. Musharraf will almost certainly win his five-year extension in power, but the legitimacy he sought will remain elusive.

"We believe that a voters' turnout of 25 percent and above will represent a widespread public support for the president's economic and political reforms," the information minister said.

But political parties, which had united to oppose this end run around the electoral process and had called for a boycott, said the low turnout amounted to a resounding defeat for Musharraf.

"Today the people of Pakistan have given their verdict against General Musharraf," said Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan, chief of the 15-party Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy. "We demand he should immediately step down."

It appeared that the most widespread turnout was among people who felt they had little choice -- soldiers, government employees and civil servants who cast their ballots in boxes set up conspicuously at their workplaces.

In a report from Hyderabad, the only crowded polling station was at a prison, where 3,500 votes were cast.

"People are fed up with these things," said a civil servant who refused to give his name. "For the last 15 years. They are fed up. Who is coming and who is going, they don't care."

It has become routine for leaders of military coups to hold referendums to try to legitimize their rule.

The civil servant used an Urdu word, natak, to describe the day's events. "It means 'theater,' " he said. "In one word it explains everything."

At a segregated women's polling station at a school here, drums beat wildly and rose petals flew through the air as a group of wives of local officials arrived to vote.

"Of course yes, definitely yes," said the wife of the provincial information minister, identifying herself as Mrs. Imtiaz Gilani. "Because I know the gentleman personally. In 2 1/2 years it's easy to see the progress we've made. Finally we've started to be proud to be Pakistanis."

But at other polling stations offstage, in the alleys of this thrumming border city, polling officers passed the day quietly with their pads of ballot papers -- no drums, no rose petals, few voters.

"There was no need to hold a referendum because we don't have any other option," said Faraz Chaudhry, 24, a sales consultant, who said he didn't cast a vote. "He would have won anyway."

The low turnout was all the more notable because of the loose, come-one-come-all voting rules the government put in place.

In an attempt to increase turnout, the voting age was lowered to 18 from 21, and 100,000 polling stations were set up in schools, factories, government offices, bus and railway stations, shopping centers, bazaars, hotels, airports and gasoline stations.

Voters' lists were dispensed with. Anyone could vote anywhere and, if they rubbed the ink mark off their hand, as often as they wished.

Almost any form of identification was accepted, including photocopies, letters of recommendation from local officials and the 12 million expired identification cards that remain in circulation.

The system for counting votes seemed relaxed. Because this is not a party election, there were no poll watchers to observe the tally. At the end of the day, officials said, poll takers emptied ballot boxes, toted the votes and telephoned in the numbers.

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