Pakistan all set for crucial polls Monday

February 17th, 2008 - 9:47 pm ICT by admin  

A file-photo of Benazir Bhutto
By Devirupa Mitra and Muhammad Najeeb
Islamabad, Feb 17 (IANS) Pakistan approaches the most important election in its history Monday with trepidation and uncertainty over its future. Even as polling stations were being readied, fears that the poll turn out may be low have been heightened after a suicide blast outside the office of a Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) candidate in north-western Pakistan, which killed 47 people Saturday, the last day of campaigning.

But, the 10th general election will go ahead, even in the constituency where the blast took place, with over 500,000 security personnel deployed across the country, including 80,000 rangers.

In cities, small towns and remote villages, nearly 170,000 polling stations in schools, colleges and hospitals, were getting kitted out - with white plastic boxes and ballot papers being conveyed by Election Commission staff.

“Polling material is being handed over to presiding officers throughout the country,” Election Commission Secretary Kanwar M. Dilshad told IANS.

He said the material meant for the far-flung polling stations has already been sent while in city areas it will be distributed early Monday morning amid security.

Outside polling stations, supporters of various political parties have already started to put up their small camps, inside which they sat and scrutinised voters’ lists.

The empty classrooms and check-up rooms will open to an 80 million-strong electorate at 8 a.m. Monday and the voting will continue till 5 p.m.

Of the 272 general seats in Pakistan’s National Assembly, four will not go to polls along with the rest of the country - three due to the death of candidates and one in South Waziristan due to security reasons.

There are about 2,100 candidates in the fray for the National Assembly, and double that number for the four provincial assemblies. There are about 180 women candidates contesting the direct elections.

The Election Commission has allotted symbols to 46 parties, but not all of them are contesting. About 16 parties have candidates only in one constituency.

There are over 1,100 observers, majority being from the European Union and a US-based NGO. Besides, there are over 400 foreign journalists covering the elections, including 37 from India.

On the eve of the polls, Pakistan was looking at the possibility of a hung parliament, even as both the PPP and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) have warned of “agitation” in case of rigging.

“Everyone can read the writing on the wall… PML-Q (Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid) is bound to be routed,” said Asif Zardari, husband of assassinated PPP leader Benazir Bhutto, after meeting former prime minister and PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif in Lahore Saturday.

“We’ll sweep the polls,” said Pervez Elahi, prime minister hopeful of the PML-Q, which is backed by President Pervez Musharraf. But political analysts say the only way the party can win the polls is through rigging.

Sharif was sent into forced exile a year after his government was overthrown in a bloodless coup in 1999. While he managed to return in November last year, he has been barred from contesting the polls. He has fielded his party’s candidates throughout the country.

Bhutto, who left the country in April 1999 and returned in October last year to lead her party in the elections, was assassinated Dec 27 minutes after she addressed an election rally in Rawalpindi’s historic Liaquat Bagh.

Her husband Zardari is now leading the party in elections and is hopeful of winning by a big margin.

Musharraf, under pressure from the international community, held elections in 2002, which were allegedly rigged in favour of his favourites who formed the government. Instead of the sacking the assembly, Musharraf got the prime minister changed.

The assembly completed its term last November, but just before that Musharraf got himself elected as president for another five years. Before taking oath as civilian president he quit the army chief’s office. He is the only president who was elected in uniform but took oath as a “civilian”.

With just hours to go for Monday’s crucial polls, Pakistani voters were being urged to cast aside fears of violence and go to vote by civil society groups through advertisements on private television channels, FM radio as well as text messages.

Although polling stations will be guarded by two rings of security, the spectre of violence has made voters uncertain about exercising their right, and many plan to keep themselves glued to the television and radio to check the situation before venturing out of their homes.

“There is so much entrenched support between the two sides, that violence is always at a trigger,” said Arif Khan, a grocery shopkeeper, in Rawalpindi, the congested twin city of the Pakistani capital, with a candle lighting his shop as he waited out the hour of compulsory power cut.

The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) has warned TV channels not to announce results until they are signed and declared by the polling officers. Some TV channels have said they would announce the trends during the counting.

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