ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Gen. Pervez Musharraf was poised early Wednesday for an overwhelming victory in a presidential referendum, although the apparent low voter turnout could weaken his authority in cracking down on Islamic extremism.
Musharraf, who came to power in a bloodless 1999 coup, hoped for a high turnout that would lend him a stamp of legitimacy, but Pakistani voters seemed largely to ignore the referendum.
He had also asked for a big win to silence those who criticized his support for the U.S. war on terror and crackdown on Islamic militancy. His most vocal critics have been radical Islamic elements, which have a following in the deeply conservative tribal belt that borders Afghanistan.
There were no reliable polls to gauge the concerns of the voters, but Pakistanis seemed largely to ignore the referendum.
Opposition political parties criticized the referendum as unconstitutional but lost their legal effort to prevent Tuesday's vote. Then they called for a voter boycott.
Still, virtually no one expected Musharraf to lose. Final results from the 87,000 polling stations around the country — some of them in prisons and gas stations — were not expected before midday Wednesday.
Information Minister Nisar Memon predicted a voter turnout of about 30 percent, down from the 38 percent in the 1997 general elections. More than 60 million people were eligible to vote.
With 10 million votes counted from 17,000 polling stations, about 9,700,000 ballots, or about 97 percent, supported extending Musharraf's term. Only 180,518 were against. The rest were ruled invalid.
"Most of the polling stations in the province remained deserted throughout the day," Maulana Fazle ur-Rehman, a prominent pro-Taliban cleric in the deeply conservative southwestern Baluchistan province, said in a statement.
Very early returns showed Musharraf advancing toward an overwhelming victory.
Before the referendum, the government-run Election Commission relaxed voting rules and even did away with registration lists.
There were reports of irregularities, with people voting more than once and only the flimsiest of identification shown to cast a ballot. Voters were supposed to show drivers' licenses and other photo identification, but officials at one polling station accepted a handwritten note from a woman with only her name written on it.
Elsewhere, a man voted a second time after saying he washed the ink mark off his thumb that referendum organizers said was indelible. Another man said he voted four times at different polling stations and his thumb was never marked with the indelible ink.
"Me and my friend voted four times. Each time they just wrote down my identity card number and nothing else," Mohammed Sajjid said.
The referendum was seen as an attempt by Musharraf to cement his grip ahead of October's parliamentary elections. Opposition parties and Islamic groups challenged the referendum on grounds that the president normally is elected by parliament, but the Pakistan Supreme Court declared the referendum legal.
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.
The 15-party Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy that urged a referendum boycott failed to mobilize much support because those parties are tainted by corruption scandals.
Musharraf said he wants another five years as president to ensure any government chosen in October's general election sticks with his reform program. Musharraf accused previously elected governments of widespread corruption, economic mismanagement and driving the country toward financial and political ruin.
In 1999, Musharraf threw out the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, Musharraf has incurred the wrath of Islamic militants for turning Pakistan from the closest ally of Afghanistan's former ruling Taliban into a key backer of the United States.
He allowed coalition forces to use Pakistan's air space, air bases and other facilities for operations in Afghanistan. Most recently, American personnel joined Pakistani forces in raiding suspected Taliban or Al Qaeda hideouts in near the Afghan border.
Musharraf also banned militant groups like Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and Harakat-ul Mujahedeen that are active in Kashmir, the territory in dispute with neighboring India, and Islamic groups like Jaish-e-Mohammed known to be close to Al Qaeda and Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, often held responsible for killing minority Shiite Muslims.
But in his final campaign speech, Musharraf tried to woo Islamic clerics.
"I assure the clerics that Pakistan is an Islamic country," he said Monday night. "Nobody can change it."
Still, criticism of Musharraf's support for the U.S.-led war on terror came Tuesday from those appearing to be ordinary citizens.
"He's sold out Pakistan's interests to please the Americans," said Wajid Khan, a businessman in his 30s, as patriotic music blared from a nearby polling station at an Islamabad supermarket.
Other voters said they backed the president.
"We need a leader like him who can command respect," said Mohammed Mazharuddin in Rawalpindi, just outside the capital.
Pro-Musharraf posters urged Pakistanis to "Be Patriotic, Vote Musharraf," and depicted him in a medal-bedecked general's uniform in front of the Pakistani flag.
A giant 30-foot poster of a smiling Musharraf also was lit up Tuesday night outside the white marble Parliament building in the federal capital.