Pakistan votes in ‘mother of all elections’, early trends mixed

February 18th, 2008 - 11:21 pm ICT by admin  

A file-photo of Benazir Bhutto
(Intro Roundup)
By Muhammad Najeeb and Devirupa Mitra
Islamabad, Feb 18 (IANS) Millions across Pakistan braved terror threats and voted Monday to pick a new parliament and four provincial assemblies in the “mother of all elections”, with stray violence leaving at least 12 people dead. The ballot count initially showed mixed trends. The trends showed slain former prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) leading in Sindh, the Mutahidda Qaumi Movement (MQM) in Karachi and the Pakistan Muslim League of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif in Punjab.

However, these trends can change as more of the votes cast at the country’s 64,176 polling stations are counted.

An estimated 35-40 percent of the 80 million voters voted for 242 national assembly and 560 provincial assembly seats.

The voting started at 8 a.m. and continued till 5 p.m. Soon after voting ended, the election staff started the count in the presence of party representatives.

Although the situation across the turbulent country was mostly peaceful, a candidate was among those killed in violence that erupted mainly between rival contenders for power.

“Most of these were isolated incidents. No major violence was reported from anywhere,” interior ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema told IANS as polling ended at 5 p.m. in thousands of balloting centres.

Cheema said seven people were killed Monday in different cities while eight died the day before.

Five people were killed in a clash between two rival political parties in Sindh after one group started celebrating their candidate’s victory, leading to exchange of gunfire.

President Pervez Musharraf, under attack within and outside Pakistan, vowed to work in harmony with the new government.

“I will work in total harmony with the new government,” he said after casting his ballot along with family members at Rawalpindi near here.

“Whosoever wins the polls, I’ll have no problem in working with them,” Musharraf, dressed in a light blue jacket and open-necked shirt, told the state-run television channel.

“Confrontational politics is damaging Pakistan. We should engage in conciliatory politics, which will be good for the country. I will cooperate.”

The president’s spokesman contradicted media reports quoting him as saying that the party backed by him - Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) - would win the polls.

Opposition leaders have vowed widespread protests if allegations of widespread rigging are proven, but Musharraf urged them to “accept the results gracefully”.

The elections are widely expected to throw up a hung National Assembly, with Bhutto’s PPP finishing at the top.

Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) is tipped to occupy the second spot. Both Bhutto, who was assassinated Dec 27 after an election rally, and Sharif returned to Pakistan last year after years in exile.

More than 80 million people were eligible to vote Monday.

Ashif Ashraf, a candidate of Sharif’s party, was shot dead in Lahore. Nine of his supporters were injured in the attack.

In another incident, militants blew up a polling station in Shakardara district of Swat Valley near the Afghan border early Monday.

One man was killed in Dadu in Sindh province when supporters of PPP and PML-Q opened gunfire at one another.

Other killings were reported in Punjab, Sindh and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). About 80 people were reported injured.

Election Commission Secretary Kanwar M. Dilshad said voting at two polling stations in Balochistan was postponed as miscreants took away hundreds of ballot papers after overpowering policemen and election staff.

Sharif, who is not allowed to contest the election, cast his ballot in Lahore. Asif Ali Zardari, who heads the PPP after his wife Benazir’s assassination, voted at Nawabshah in Sindh where his sister is contesting the National Assembly seat.

Officials said turnout was poor in the initial hours, mainly due to fears of terror attacks. But it picked up in the afternoon and long queues were seen outside polling stations.

Experts told IANS that they expected the turnout to be over 30 percent.

Many voters returned home disappointed as their names were missing from the electoral lists.

“I went to vote but was told by the polling staff that my name is not on the list,” renowned social worker Abdul Sattar Edhi complained to IANS.

At least seven polling stations meant for women in NWFP, tribal areas and Punjab were closed down after “elders” there decided that women would not vote.

“We have received reports that voting has been stopped at women’s polling stations in these areas and we’ll take action against those involved in it,” the Election Commission spokesman told IANS.

The election campaign took a bloody turn Dec 27 when Islamist radicals assassinated Bhutto. At least 250 people have also been killed since November in the run-up to the balloting.

The election was originally scheduled for Jan 8 but was put off to Feb 18 after Bhutto’s assassination sparked violent protests by her supporters.

The PPP is also expected to fare well in the provinces - Balochistan, Punjab, NWFP and Sindh, which together account for 571 provincial seats.

A total of 221 reserved seats for women and non-Muslim minority communities in the National Assembly and the provincial assemblies will be allocated to political parties in proportion to the general seats they win in each chamber.

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