ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Pakistanis overwhelmingly approved another five years in office for military President Pervez Musharraf, referendum results showed Wednesday, and the government claimed a higher-than-expected turnout had given the vote legitimacy.
``It is a massive victory for the people of Pakistan,'' said Information Minister Nisar Memon. ``They were not affected by the negative propaganda of the opposition. The opposition has been summarily rejected, and now they should accept the verdict of the people.''
Musharraf, who seized power in a coup in 1999 and risked national outrage by siding with the United States in the Afghan war, had hoped Tuesday's referendum would give his presidency a stamp of approval.
By early afternoon the Election Commission reported results from three-quarters of the country's polling stations, with 98 percent of voters favoring Musharraf and less than 2 percent against. The final vote count and the official voter turnout was expected to be known later in the day.
With reports in from more than 66,000 of the 87,242 polling stations, Musharraf had 36.5 million votes in his favor, and only 625,891 votes against him, according to the Election Commission. Those figures so far amount to 62 percent of the more than 60 million eligible voters.
Memon said the turnout was ``much higher than the government's expectations.'' He rebuffed earlier claims by rival politicians that the turnout was low and amounted to a rejection of Musharraf.
``The voting was orderly. No untoward incident was reported'' from any part of the country, Memon told reporters. ``Those who opposed the referendum preferred to stay at home and didn't create any problem.''
Individual voters who supported Musharraf praised him for backing the U.S.-led war on terrorism, promoting economic stability and fighting corruption. However, the main opposition parties and hardline Islamic groups claimed their call to boycott the vote had kept Musharraf from getting the mandate he wanted.
Salma Rahim, an Islamabad housewife, said Wednesday that her entire family voted for Musharraf.
``People are expecting big things from him,'' Rahim said. ``Now he must prove himself and do something good for the country. He should take action against corrupt people and punish those who kill innocent people.''
But others were disgruntled.
``Pervez Musharraf has no right to rule the country,'' said Razzaq Mahmood. ``All big political parties oppose him and only irrelevant politicians support him.''
Despite being the chief of Pakistan's powerful military, which seized power from the democratically elected government in 1999, Musharraf campaigned like a politician.
He crisscrossed the country pumping hands, mingling with the people and putting up giant pictures of himself throughout the capital of Islamabad. He asked for a protracted term as president to allow him time to put in effect economic and political reforms.
Musharraf's most vocal critics have been radical Islamic leaders, who have a following in the deeply conservative tribal belt that borders Afghanistan and who supported that country's deposed Taliban.
The voting was marred by reports of irregularities. Some people said they had voted more than once and others voted after showing only the flimsiest of identification.
Voters were supposed to provide drivers' licenses and other photo identification, but at one polling station, officials accepted a handwritten note from a woman with only her name written on it.
Elsewhere, voter Mohammed Farid said he voted a second time after washing off the ink mark on his thumb. However, other voters said they had been unable to wash off their mark even with repeated scrubbing.
Another voter, Mohammed Sajjid, said he and a friend voted four times at different polling stations. Not once was his thumb marked with the indelible ink, he said.
There were few rules and regulations to the voting. The Election Commission had done away with registration lists, and polling stations proliferated, with many placed at unlikely locations like gas stations and in prisons.
With the voting age lowered to 18 from 21, many of those who turned out were casting their first ballot and were enthusiastic about Musharraf.
``All my friends like him,'' said college student Naveed Jamaltudent. ``He is daring and bold.''
During the campaign, a 30-foot-high poster of a smiling Musharraf towered over Pakistan's white marble Parliament building — empty since the military's bloodless coup in 1999 threw out the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
The Supreme Court endorsed Musharraf's takeover, but gave him three years to introduce reforms and return the country to democracy. The deadline expires in October. On Saturday, the Supreme Court rejected a challenge to the referendum and backed Musharraf, saying it was legal.