- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 30, 2002

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan Pakistan's military ruler pledged in a televised speech to the nation that the polling will be "free and fair" in a referendum today called to extend his term for another five years.

The national Election Commission, meanwhile, relaxed the rules on voting to ensure the maximum turnout.

"I need your strength to go forward," Gen. Pervez Musharraf said in his speech last night. "Your decision will be fully acceptable and final for me."

He also tried to woo hard-line Islamic clerics who opposed him for abandoning the Taliban and joining the U.S. war on terrorism. "I assure the clerics that Pakistan is an Islamic country," he said. "Nobody can change it."

Opposition leaders, who lost a bid in the Supreme Court last week to have the referendum declared unconstitutional, accused the government of preparing to manipulate the vote and renewed their call for a boycott.

Last-minute changes on who can vote as well as the establishment of polling stations in unprecedented places like gas stations and even prisons are part of "institutionalized rigging taking place to achieve the desired results," said Raza Rabbani, a leader of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples' Party.

Gen. Musharraf called the referendum to secure his presidency, which he seized in a 1999 coup, for another five years before the next parliamentary elections in October.

While the referendum is expected to pass, he is hoping for a large turnout to give the move a stamp of legitimacy. Turnout was only about 35 percent in the last parliamentary elections in 1997.

The main opposition parties, usually busy attacking each other, have joined in the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy to oppose the referendum. They have called on Gen. Musharraf to step down and return the country to elected leaders.

At a rally in Karachi, Mr. Rabbani told about 4,000 supporters to stay home today.

"Don't come out of your houses," he said, promising "a new phase of struggle against this government."

But the boycott calls are undercut by corruption charges that have besmirched the parties and brought down the two previous governments.

Gen. Musharraf said expenses were being kept to a "minimum" and denied he was wasting government money.

"The money is not being spent on me, but on an issue which can turn against me also," he said.

At a news conference in the capital, Islamabad, Election Commission chief Irshad Hasan Khan said the referendum would cost $8 million, not counting campaign expenses. Mr. Khan insisted his office had taken all necessary measures to prevent electoral fraud.

The judiciary has appointed polling assistants to ensure the integrity of the voting, he said. Foreign observers, including diplomats from the United States and the European Union, also will be allowed to visit polling stations.

The commission has taken unprecedented steps to "facilitate" the estimated 60 million voters, including extending the voting time by two hours in the evening.

It has scrapped the usual voter registration list and declared the entire country as a single constituency. In another order, it said students who are at least 18 can vote by presenting identity cards or certificates bearing photographs from their educational institutions.

For the first time, Pakistanis living abroad have been allowed to vote through embassies and consulates.

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