True to expectations, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf today overwhelmingly won the nationwide referendum he sought to continue in office for another five years, an exercise dismissed by critics as a farce with grave implications for parliamentary elections due in October.
Announcing the result, Chief Election Commissioner Irshad Hassan Khan said in a national television broadcast that of the 43.9 million votes cast, 42.8 million ballots were in favour and 883,676 were opposed with the rest invalid. That meant 97.7 per cent of those voting backed Musharraf.
Earlier, overruling complaints of by mainstream political parties of largescale irregularities, the Election Commission had said with the bulk of the counting nearly completed, Musharraf has secured 3.65 crore "yes" votes against 6.25 lakh "no" votes.
It said the turnout of voters in the "vote anywhere" referendum was an unprecedented 50 per cent, which was a record of sorts in the electoral history of Pakistan.
Mainstream political and religious parties, which boycotted the referendum, said the turnout was abysmally low at five per cent and "inflated" official figures only proved their allegation of largescale rigging.
In the first independent assessment of the referendum, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), in a damning statement on the conduct of the referendum, said irregularities "exceeded its worst fears." "The manner in which the people were hustled into voting and the flagrant abuse of election procedures degraded the very concept of democratic choice," HRCP chairman Afrasiab Khattak said.
In London, Commonwealth Secretary General Don Mckinnon said the referendum was not part of the roadmap to democracy and insisted on a full return to constitutional rule in Pakistan.
The victory of Musharraf, who named himself President in June last year days before his visit to India for the Agra Summit, surpassed the results of referendums held by Gen Ayub Khan in 1960 and Gen. Zia ul Haq in 1984. Both prolonged their rule by suppressing democracy.
Critics of the government pointed out Musharraf had totally dispensed with electoral rolls and permitted people to vote anywhere in the country with minimum identity procedures.
If he adopts such "farcical" methods in the October general elections, it would have grave implications, they said.
According to them, Musharraf, the country's fourth military ruler since its formation in 1947, wants to use his victory in the referendum to consolidate his hold over power ahead of the elections to the national and provincial assemblies.