Pakistan's flawed referendum.

Pakistan's flawed referendum.

Pakistan's flawed referendum.

What the foreign papers are saying.
May 1 2002 4:05 PM

Gen. Election

Gen. Pervez Musharraf won a predictable landslide victory in Tuesday's referendum and will serve five more years as president of Pakistan. The referendum asked, "For the survival of the local government system, establishment of democracy, continuity of reforms, end to sectarianism and extremism, and to fulfil the vision of Quaid-e-Azam [Pakistan's founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah], would you like to elect President General Pervez Musharraf as president of Pakistan for five years?" Partial results released Wednesday morning showed that 97 percent of voters voted "Yes." The government put the turnout at around 70 percent, while opposition parties pegged it as low as 2 percent to 3 percent. The editor of Pakistan's Nation told the Independent, "The truth lies somewhere in between but rather on the lower side."

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If the general, who seized power in a 1999 bloodless coup, sought the voters' approval to enhance the legitimacy of his administration, the election was almost certainly too flawed to achieve his purpose. As the London Times' foreign editor noted, "The way in which President Musharraf has choreographed this referendum has lost him friends abroad and strengthened the opposition at home." Most English-language Pakistani papers focused on what Dawn called "blatant irregularities" in the electoral process. To encourage turnout, the voting age was reduced from 21 to 18, there was no electoral list and no election monitors, identification standards were lowered, voters could use any polling station, and several papers reported that the "indelible" ink used to prevent repeat voting washed off easily. A Reuters story in the Times of India described a presiding officer at a Rawalpindi polling station openly falsifying votes in favor of Gen. Musharraf on the orders of her superiors. She was instructed to accumulate 500 "yes" votes at her booth, but only 150 voters showed up. "What can we do? We are government servants and we have to do our job," she told a reporter. The Times of London said, "The tactics to secure an endorsement have been so crude, so Soviet—bussing in supporters, harassing journalists, forcing civil servants to the booths and condoning widespread fraud—that they have alienated most of the middle classes."

The Financial Times worried that Musharraf might face a similar fate to Pakistan's two previous military rulers who sought referendum approval, neither of whom completed their terms: "[F]ew Pakistanis or foreign observers would bet their life savings on Gen Musharraf's longevity. In taking steps to concentrate more power in his own office while confronting the country's heavily armed jehadi groups, the general is creating powerful enemies." The op-ed also raised concerns about his "unsubtle attempt to aggrandise the power of the presidency at the expense of genuine democracy. … Last week he said he would respect the October polls but would maintain 'unity of command' in their aftermath. To critics, such talk smacks of military authoritarianism." The Frontier Post of Peshawar agreed:

He is here to stay, and even after he is gone (which if he has his way, possibly will not be for a decade), the armed forces will have consolidated their grip on power in an institutionalised form. This, then, is the "genuine democracy" of which so much has been made by the General, and which he is fond of contrasting with the "sham" democracy of yesteryear. Could there be a greater travesty of democracy in the name of democracy?

June Thomas is managing producer of Slate podcasts.