Pakistan's President Musharraf is seeking political legitimacy through a referendum which he hopes will allow him to continue in office for another five years. Critics accuse it of being undemocratic.
Promises to push ahead with reforms - Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf casts his vote
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has placed his future in the hands of voters in the form of a controversial referendum on extending his rule for five years.
Musharraf is seeking to extend his presidency before the deadline is up in October, when the next parliamentary elections are do to be held.
Last July the Pakistani leader declared himself President in addition to being named head of the army and government.
The Pakistani President, who went from international pariah to key player on world stage when he emerged as an American ally in the fight against terrorism, seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999.
The Pakistani Supreme Court endorsed the military leader, but gave him three years to introduce reforms and steer the country back on a democratic path.
Musharraf says he wants a mandate to remain in power and to continue economic and political reforms, root out corruption and curb religious extremism.
After the collapse of four civilian governments in the 1990s on charges of corruption and nepotism and with Pakistan smothered under a mountain of debt, Musharraf has also pledged to revive the economy and establish "real" democracy.
Musharraf's win guaranteed?
Despite boycott calls from the main opposition parties and hard-line Islamic leaders, analysts believe that victory is almost certain for the military ruler.
With the backing of leading business groups, trade unions and even some political parties for the powerful military, Musharraf is expected to effectively silence opposition and sail through with a thumping electoral win.
In a televised speech to the nation earlier in the day, Musharraf said, "Pakistan stands at an important turning point. I need your strength to go forward. Your decision will be fully acceptable and final for me". He also stressed that the election would be "free, fair and crystal clear".
Critics cry foul
But Musharraf’s critics strongly doubt the leader's statement.
They believe that the referendum is an attempt by Musharraf to hold on to power and institutionalise the military’s political role in Pakistan.
Pakistan’s political parties oppose the referendum as undemocratic and unconstitutional.
There have also been rumours of the election being rigged as evidence emerges that some employees of Pakistan’s massive civil service were being forced to vote.
"We are being dragged to vote," an employee of the Rawalpindi Water and Sanitation Authority told Reuters as he arrived with his superiors at the ballot stations.
"While working in government, you can't say 'no'," said one civil servant voting alongside his colleagues in Islamabad.
The Alliance for Restoration of Democracy – an umbrella organisation of Pakistan’s main political parties – urged people to stay at home, but ruled out violence to block voters from going to the polls.
Opposition not strong and clean enough
Analysts believe that Musharraf’s political rivals have failed in mobilising public opinion against him mainly because many of them are sullied by corruption scandals.
One of them is the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), whose leader Benazir Bhutto fled into exile to London after being convicted for corruption in 1998.
Several hard-line Islamic groups, incensed by Musharraf’s decision to abandon the Afghan Taliban and stick with the US-led coalition against terror, are also strongly opposed to the referendum.
But Musharraf has been trying hard to woo Islamic clerics by assuring them that he has not turned his back on them and underlining that Pakistan "is essentially an Islamic country" and "nobody can change that" in his televised speech.
Referendum test of Musharraf's popularity
Though political analysts do not doubt that Musharraf will remain in office, the bigger question they say is whether Musharraf will get the large voter turnout he needs as stamp of political legitimacy.
The final turnout figure they say will be a key test of his grassroots support and a barometer of his popularity. The general and former military commando has never sought a verdict on his leadership from the people.
Despite its questionable legality under the constitution, the referendum has been approved by the Supreme Court and has the tacit support of Europe and the US, who see Musharraf as a key partner in the war against terrorism.