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Thursday, 2 May, 2002, 12:29 GMT 13:29 UK
Pakistan referendum: BBC correspondent Susannah Price
The BBC's correspondent in Islamabad, Susannah Price, answered your questions on the election in a LIVE forum.
The people of Pakistan are voting on whether President Musharraf should be allowed to stay in power for another five years.
Turnout has been patchy, and in some areas people appear to have observed an opposition call to boycott the referendum.
It is the first time a vote has been held without declaring a public holiday, and there are polling booths inside factories and other workplaces, and at markets.
However, there are no voter lists or constituencies, and anyone who can prove their identity and age can go to any polling station.
Critics say the system will make it easy for people to vote more than once.
But is a referendum the right way to decide on the future of Pakistan?
What the opposition say is that the turnout was very poor and very low. The opposition in fact called for a boycott, so they would watch the turnout very carefully and take indications that there weren't many people turning out as a suggestion of support for the opposition. We talked to human rights groups here and they also say that the turnout of those voluntarily going to vote was low. But what the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said is that it found a lot of people, government employees, and factory workers who were actually instructed to go and vote and they may well have helped to swell the numbers.
It must be said we went to polling stations here in Islamabad and we saw quite a mixed bag. In one, we were there just before the polls opened, there were just four or five people, the second we went to was completely deserted. But the third one which was closer to a shopping centre and also to the law courts, there were about a queue of 15 to 20 people. So I think the busier polling stations you found around the shopping areas, around the places where people worked, because of course it was an ordinary working day here. This was one of the innovations brought in by President Musharraf. It wasn't declared a holiday. So people were in town, they were out and about and that may have given them a greater incentive to vote.
What was supposed to happen was that people when they wanted to vote, and they could vote anywhere, simply had to show an identity card or another document and they would then have their thumb marked with indelible ink. This was supposed to be, if they tried to get back again, they would then be immediately identified as somebody who had already voted. Now apparently people were, in some cases, not getting their thumb marked, they were hiding that thumb when they went back, or they were even washing off the indelible ink. And so they were able to go back. And we have had various reports, first hand reports, from correspondents of things like that happening.
The other concerns come from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, they also say they had reports from their monitors of various cases of multiple voting and also they cite cases of the actual polling officials inside the polling stations marking the ballot papers themselves. Now what the government has said, it said it will investigate these reports. It says there could be a few, they would be massively overstated, and it says that it doesn't feel that any irregularities that are found would substantially change the outcome of the referendum.
What usually happens is the president is chosen by the members of the National and Provincial Assemblies and the Senate. The opposition claims that the president was too scared, didn't feel confident enough to go for that option, couldn't guarantee he would be elected in that case and preferred to use the state machinery to help him in a referendum which would be easier to win. They are declaring it was unconstitutional, the opposition, and other interest groups have done, including lawyers who went to the Supreme Court. But the Supreme Court found that it was constitutional and it could go ahead. So what the opposition then said was that we still don't recognise this as constitutional, we don't want to get involved in the process in any way. They said they believed the figures were being massaged anyway and so they felt the best thing to do and the most obvious sign of dissent would be to keep people away from the polling stations altogether and that's why they didn't want to get involved.
Another quite interesting point is that just before the referendum, President Musharraf was asked if he would go for another term in office after he'd completed this five years, if he's won the referendum, and what he said was if the people wanted him he might consider it. So he's very much looking now I think to the longer term, he is showing, I think, he has these longer term ambitions. People are also concerned, I think, about how much power will be centred on the post of president. In the past it has been quite a powerful position. The president has had the power to dismiss governments, and has carried that out. But in more recent years, he's been more of a figurehead. Now what President Musharraf, I think, who had been looking for the endorsement from the referendum, wants to carry out some constitutional reforms. And some of those may well involve strengthening his position, again giving him the power to dissolve the Assemblies, possibly reducing the number of years that Parliament sits, from five years to maybe four years, or three years. And I think people will be watching that very closely to see if he really now becomes much more than a figurehead and if he tries to really become the power base in the country.
President Musharraf abandoned Pakistan's support for the Taleban, moved very quickly to express his wholehearted backing for the American-led coalition, and even offered some help. And since then we've seen this incredible stream of visitors here to Pakistan, including the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, everybody coming here not really mentioning the question of democracy, just very keen to congratulate President Musharraf and it was notable I think even in the lead up to this referendum, there was very muted criticism from abroad. There were expressions of concern, but no real condemnation and I think the fact that President Musharraf is now being on-side means that most countries in the West will now say, allright, we'll give him to October, he must carry out elections as promised and if he does that then I think they will stop the heavy criticism that we saw at the beginning because of the coup.
It has been very difficult for President Musharraf to win over, especially the hardliners, and he certainly hasn't won over a lot of the extremists, and I think they feel in return they haven't really seen a lot of help from the West. So although it's an interesting point, and it's something I think people have different views on, I think it probably wasn't the key issue in this referendum. There are related matters, though, that people are very interested in and I think one of those is President Musharraf's pledge to crack down on Islamic extremism and there's been a lot of sectarian violence, for example, in this country which has left a lot of people dead. There's been ethnic violence, and he has outlawed certain groups, he has detained extremists. And I think many people here are very pleased to see that, they think that violence has pulled Pakistan apart for too long and they would really like to see him continue in that policy.
So there will be many questions. We will now at last see politics begin to take up I think in Pakistan after two and half years where really there's been very little political action. We saw some rallies, President Musharraf in particular, addressed a lot of rallies before the referendum. The opposition was only allowed to hold one mass rally. I think we'll see more and more of that. We'll hear a lot of manoeuvring, a lot of parties changing sides. I think it will become very interesting in the lead-up to the elections. But we'll have to wait and see of course if everyone considers that they are free and fair.
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