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Musharraf pledges fresh terror crackdown

Officials count ballots by candlelight after a power failure Tuesday night.
Officials count ballots by candlelight after a power failure Tuesday night.  

Staff and wires

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- President Pervez Musharraf has promised a new crackdown on terrorism and called for an end to national divisions.

"In the days to come, a new campaign on terrorism will be announced," Musharraf said in a nationally televised speech Thursday, Associated Press reports.

Musharraf, who this week won a contentious referendum installing him as president for the next five years, also said that Pakistanis wanted "an end to sectarianism and extremism".

"We should forget the tensions of the past and look toward the future in the interest of Pakistan," Musharraf said in the 10-minute speech.

In keeping with the low-key tone of his comments, the President wore a grey suit instead of his more usual general's uniform.

Pakistani Finance Minister Shaukat Aziz talks about the outlook for his country
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Despite Musharraf's call for unity, analysts are predicting worsening polarization as the President's landslide victory is increasingly marred by allegations of widespread fraud.

Election officials say Musharraf got 97.7 percent of all votes cast and put the turnout at over 50 percent, but critics say Tuesday's poll was a fraud, questioning both the results and the way the vote was carried out.

Musharraf, the country's top general, seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999 and risked national outrage by siding with the United States in its war on terror against the al Qaeda network.

The referendum was designed to give him a mandate to bolster economic and political reforms, and to remain in power after parliamentary elections due in October.

Information Minister Nisar Memon described the vote as "a massive victory for the people of Pakistan."

'Widespread cheating'

CNN's Mike Chinoy reports that low voter turnout may taint the Pakistan president's overwhelming victory in a referendum that keeps him in power for five more years.

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But human rights groups have slammed the vote, saying the machinery of the state was used to ensure victory. They accused organizers of tolerating widespread cheating, including allowing people to vote several times and coercing voters.

Representative of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Asma Jehangir, said teams from her organization visited about 150 polling stations throughout the country.

They videotaped people voting several times, casting ballots without showing 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.

While the country of 140 million would typically have 70 million eligible voters, the electoral 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.

Pakistani opposition forces accused the government of stuffing the ballot box, with Musharraf supporters allegedly stamping stacks of ballot papers to ensure his success, while analysts complained about a lack of process.

"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.

Musharraf rejection

A government employee shows her identification before voting.
A government employee shows her identification before voting.  

Independent observers also questioned the government's turnout figures, saying polling stations were largely quiet in country's two biggest cities, Karachi and Lahore.

Officials have said 50 percent of eligible voters turned out to vote, which would be well above the 38 percent reported in the parliamentary elections of 1997.

Opposition political parties and Islamic groups, which called for a boycott of the referendum and dismissed it as undemocratic, estimated a turnout of just 5 to 7 percent.

"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.

The government has defended its figures, saying the turnout was much higher than expected.

Pakistan's information minister Memon said reports of low turnout and irregularities had not been verified and were in any case exaggerated.

U.S. reacts

Musharraf eased rules on voting to bolster his support in the referendum
Musharraf eased rules on voting to bolster his support in the referendum  

The United States has refrained from criticizing the referendum, with a State Department spokesman in Washington saying it's up to the Pakistani people to decide its value.

But Commonwealth Secretary-General Don McKinnon said Pakistan would be monitored and discussed at the next Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group meeting.

Pakistan was suspended from the Commonwealth, a grouping of former British colonies, after Musharraf's coup.

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.




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