Pakistanis turned out in huge numbers to cast their ballots, on Saturday, in landmark general elections, amid reports of election-related violence stemming from several cities across the country.
For the first time ever in Pakistan's chequered history, the general elections are tipped to usher in transition of power among two civilian governments. Besides, it is considered to be a democratic milestone for a country rife with ethnic, sectarian and political conflicts.
Polling began at 8 a.m. local time (GMT+05:00) and is scheduled until 5 p.m. local time without any break for 342 seats in the national assembly and 728 seats in the four provincial assemblies.
Aware of the significance of exercising their franchise, resolute voters queued in polling booths even as Taliban-led militants initiated violence across several cities killing at least 16 and injuring over 40. Latest reports also suggest sparring in several polling booths among voters of rival factions. More than 60,000 troops were apparently deployed in the polling booths as a preventive measure to thwart terrorist strikes.
Tired of the excessive militancy, infighting among ruling party members, corruption and political conflicts, several Pakistanis exercised their franchise to choose the first civilian government that would assume power from another elected government, in 66 years of the country's history.
In the elections – termed deadliest by the observers – Imran Khan, a former cricketer-turned-politician who wields impressive clout in the country is taking on a two-time former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the incumbent President Asif Ali Zardari
While Khan represents the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI) party, Nawaz Sharif represents Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) party and Zardari, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).
Recent opinion polls indicated a sudden surge in the support for Khan’s PTI party, which observers point out has emerged from people’s disenchantment with the two mainstream parties, whose previous tenures were mired with corruption, conflicts and infighting leading to military rule.
Sharif’s PML-N still leads the race, but PTI is just whiskers behind posing a tough competition to the incumbent government, according to the polls.
At present, the 61-year-old Khan is receiving treatment for injuries sustained during a fall in an election rally. Khan, who has pitched himself as a youth icon is widely regarded as one capable of bringing in a refreshing change in the country’s politics.
Meanwhile, former military ruler Pervez Musharraf, who arrived in the country in late March to contest in the general elections, is being held under judicial custody as he faces trial for several decisions made during his tenure at office. Following a recent Pakistan High Court verdict that permanently disqualified Musharraf from running for political office, his party decided to boycott the elections.
The elections are being held at a crucial juncture against the backdrop of a struggling economy marred by spiraling militant attacks and corruption scandals. As a result, many are disillusioned with the government.
So far, elected governments of Pakistan have apparently lacked tooth to fight widespread corruption or reign in militant elements that were threatening the democratic fabric of the country. Besides, a myriad economic problems ranging from chronic power cuts, unemployment and feeble infrastructure pose a challenge to growth in the Asian country.
"The problems facing the new government will be immense and this may be the last chance that the country's existing elites have to solve them," Anatol Lieven, a professor at King's College, London, and author of a book on Pakistan said.
"If the lives of ordinary Pakistanis are not significantly improved over the next five years, a return to authoritarian solutions remains a possibility," Lieven wrote in a column in the Financial Times.
Election Day Violence Kills 17; Women Prevented From Voting In Many Places
A string of militant attacks targeting candidates, party offices and polling booths were reported across the nation on the day of election casting a shadow over the historical event. Violent clashes among supporters of rival candidates were reported from the Sukkur, Karampur ditricts and voting was stalled in three polling stations in Thull after one person was killed and seven were injured in a fight among rival factions.
A bomb blast at the office of the Awami National Party (ANP) in the commercial capital, Karachi, killed over 10 people and wounded 40. Another explosion destroyed an ANP office in the northwest where there was no immediate report of casualties, Reuters stated.
Bomb blasts were also reported from Quetta and Peshawar. The first blast occurred near the election office of ANP candidate Amanullah Mehsud. Mehsud who is contesting for the Sindh assembly elections escaped unhurt, but several party workers were killed in the powerful blast. A second bomb went off minutes later in a polling station near an ANP office in the same area, the Press Trust of India news agency reported.
Five persons were injured when a bomb attached to a motor cycle exploded near a polling station at Charsadda Road in Peshawar, the capital of the northwestern province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.
So far, no group has claimed responsibility for the attacks; however, the Pakistani Taliban had previously vowed to unleash violence on the Election Day, terming the elections as unIslamic. Taliban, which threatened to disrupt the voting process, has killed more than 120 people including three candidates in the run-up to the elections.
Local media reports stated that in many places women were barred from exercising their franchise in the elections.
“In North Waziristan, many women live in purdah, confined to women-only quarters at home and prevented from leaving the premises without a male relative,” the AFP news agency reported
There are also reports that in Lower Dir, a group of tribal elders decided that women will not be allowed to vote, the AFP added.