Polling on in Pakistan amid fears of terror attacks

February 18th, 2008 - 12:31 pm ICT by admin  

A file-photo of Benazir Bhutto
By Muhammad Najeeb and Devirupa Mitra
Islamabad, Feb 18 (IANS) Thousands voted across Pakistan Monday to elect a new parliament and four provincial assemblies in an election marred by unprecedented violence and which threatens to throw up hung legislatures. Although 80 million voters are eligible to vote in the polling that began at 8 a.m., officials said that turnout was poor in the initial hours, due mainly to fears of terror attacks.

Political analysts and diplomats are predicting a hung 269-member National Assembly with the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) expected to finish on top.

The election campaign took a bloody turn Dec 27 when Islamist radicals assassinated PPP leader and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto after a public rally at Rawalpindi near here.

At least 250 people have also been killed since November in the run up to the balloting, which many fear may be rigged.

The start of voting was delayed at some polling stations after the polling staff did not reach there on time, officials said here.

About 81,000 soldiers have been deployed to guard over 64,000 polling stations around the country.

On Sunday, PML-N leader and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif urged the government not to come in the way of free and fair elections.

“I warn the government not to resort to rigging,” he said after an attack on his party office in Lahore.

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 and a call for boycott of the polls by the All Parties Democratic Movement (APDM) alliance that draws its strength mainly from the Jamaat-i-Islami and some nationalist parties of Balochistan.

Both Bhutto and Sharif returned to Pakistan last year after years in self-imposed exile to take part in the polls, which President Pervez Musharraf has described as the “mother of all elections”.

Sharif, however, has been barred from contesting the polls. After his charismatic wife’s death, Bhutto’s husband Asif Ali Zardari is leading the PPP.

Most analysts think the PPP will sweep its traditional power base of rural Sindh and do better than in the controversial 2002 election that cemented Musharraf.

The PPP is also expected to fair well in the provinces - Balochistan, Punjab, North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Sindh, which together account for 571 provincial seats.

The most likely loser in Monday’s test of strength is expected to be the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-e-Azam (PML).

Musharraf, increasingly under attack, has dismissed predictions of a sweep by PPP and Sharif’s party.

The decisive battle is being fought in the most populous province of Punjab, which has 148 seats in the National Assembly and where a resurgent PML-N and PPP will vie to sweep maximum seats.

Sindh, where PML-ally Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) is likely to retain its dominance in the urban centres of Karachi and Hyderabad, has 61 general seats in the National Assembly.

The NWFP elects 35 MPs and Balochistan, Pakistan’s biggest province, 14.

Analysts also believe that humiliation awaits a now divided Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) alliance of Islamist parties, which swept the NWFP and Balochistan in 2002 because of an anti-American wave after the US invasion of Afghanistan and due to Musharraf’s policy of sidelining the mainstream PPP and PML-N.

The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) has 12 seats, most of whose winners are likely to join the opposition ranks because of the prevailing anti-regime sentiment there due to the so-called war on terror.

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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