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Pakistanis defy attacks and vote in landmark poll

Millions of voters turned out to cast their ballots in Pakistan's historic election Saturday despite Taliban threats and a series of attacks in a few volatile areas. The poll marks Pakistan's first-ever transition of civilian governments.


Braving Taliban threats and attacks, millions of Pakistanis turned out to vote Saturday in a landmark election marking the first transition between civilian governments in the country’s 66-year history.

Polls opened amid tight security across Pakistan with voters lining up at polling stations in some of the main cities despite the searing heat and the omnipresent fear of attacks.

By midday, the country’s election commission said the voter turnout was 30% - an indication that the total turnout looked set to cross the 44% mark of the last general election in 2008. Voting was extended by an extra hour nationwide to allow people queuing at polling centers to cast their ballot, according to the AFP. In Pakistan’s largest city of Karachi, polling was extended by three hours in some constituencies because voting started late.

A series of gunfights and bomb attacks targeted party offices and polling stations in some of the volatile parts of this South Asian nation, killing at least 17 people.

In the tinderbox port city of Karachi, a bomb attack on the office of the (ANP) Awami National Party killed 11 people and wounded around 40 others. At least three other attacks – including gunfights – were reported across the city.

Gunmen killed two people outside a polling station in Baluchistan, the southwestern province where separatists oppose the election, and in the northwestern city of Peshawar, a bomb explosion killed at least one person and wounded 10 others, according to local police officials.

Voters undeterred

But the attacks failed to deter people from the polls as millions of Pakistanis, buoyed by a prospect of change and keenly aware of the historic nature of Saturday’s vote, cast their ballots to elect representatives to the National Assembly – or lower house – as well as provincial assemblies.

“This election is very significant,” said Mustafa Qadri, Pakistan researcher at Amnesty International. “Yes, there are many problems, but we should not dismiss this election – it’s a chance for Pakistan to deepen its democratic process and also for citizens to demonstrate they won't be intimidated by groups like the Taliban into not exercising their right to choose their government.”

Violence has been a key problem in the run-up to Saturday’s vote, with the Taliban targeting three secular parties – including outgoing President Asif Ali Zardari’s PPP (Pakistan Peoples’ Party).

Security was tight across Pakistan, with the military deploying troops and additional security personnel at polling stations and counting centres amid Taliban threats to disrupt the vote.

In the most populous province of Punjab alone, 300,000 security officials - including 32,000 troops - have been deployed. Another 96,000 security forces have been posted in the Taliban stronghold regions in northwestern Pakistan.

Saturday’s vote came just days after former Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s son, Ali Haider Gilani – a provincial assembly candidate - was kidnapped during an election rally in the central Pakistani city of Multan.

The kidnapping highlighted the relentless levels of violence in a country that’s no stranger to election-related bloodshed.

“It’s been a very, very brutal and very bloody campaign,” said FRANCE 24’s Rezaul Hasan, reporting from Islamabad days before the historic vote. “There are widespread reports that there could be attacks during the polling and the army has deployed hundreds of thousands of security personnel. But it still remains to be seen whether polling will be peaceful because the militants - the Taliban - have shown their ability to strike despite all the security measures that have been put in place.”
Khan rises, falls – and rides a sympathy wave

Khan rises, falls – and rides a sympathy wave

Violence has been a key problem in the run-up to Saturday’s vote, with the Taliban targeting three secular parties – including outgoing President Asif Ali Zardari’s PPP (Pakistan Peoples’ Party).

While the Taliban threats forced candidates from the PPP, the MQM (Muttahida Quami Movement) and the ANP (Awami National Party) to opt for virtual campaigns on social media sites, some of the other national parties were able to hold massive campaign events – especially in the electorally important Punjab province.

The 2013 campaign has seen the rise of the cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan, who was once dismissed as an upstart but has now emerged as a serious political challenger.

Khan’s PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf) party has trailed behind former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League) in the opinion polls. But the PTI could win enough seats to play a kingmaker role after Saturday’s vote.

“Imran Khan is a genuine force in Pakistani politics,” said Qadri. “But it’s not clear how many votes his party can get. The traditional parties are very good at mobilising their supporters on Election Day. It remains to be seen if the PTI can compete at getting their voters to turn out and vote.”

Khan himself has benefitted from a wave of sympathetic media coverage following his May 5 fall off a mechanical lift at a Lahore election rally. While doctors have said the former cricketer will not be out of hospital to vote on Saturday, Pakistani media outlets have featured interviews with Khan from his hospital bed set to rousing music that appeals to voters in this music-mad country.

On the campaign trail, Khan has been popular with the urban middle classes – particularly the youth. But analysts note that the urban middle classes do not turn out to vote in the same numbers as their rural counterparts in a country where nearly 65% of the total 182 million-strong population hails from the rural areas.

Military Big Brother monitors Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif

While Khan has portrayed himself as a candidate for change against the established PPP and PML-N parties, some analysts are sceptical of his much-touted outsider credentials.

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“Imran Khan, like the other political forces in Pakistan, is made with the help of the establishment,” said Ayesha Siddiqa, a Pakistani analyst and author on military affairs, referring to Pakistan’s all-powerful military and parts of the civil administration.

“The military is still there and will continue to be there. It wants to ensure that there’s a semi-civilian government that will not interfere in security policy and the most pressing issue, which is the 2014 US withdrawal from Afghanistan,” explained Siddiqa.

Khan has promised that if he wins, he will order the army to shoot down US drones, a position decried by many analysts as naïve.

While Khan is an untested upstart in Pakistani politics, the frontrunner in the 2013 elections, former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, is a seasoned political leader having served two non-consecutive terms in office.

This time, the old “lion of Punjab” as he’s popularly known, appears to be on a collision course with the military.

Sharif has promised his supporters that if he becomes prime minister for the third time, he will ensure the military follows the orders of a civilian government – an approach he failed to implement while he was in power.

Sharif’s failure to condemn the Taliban - which has spared his party while targeting his opponents – has been noted by the Pakistani military establishment. His promise to hold peace talks with the Taliban is also at odds with the military’s stated objective of crushing rebellions that are a threat to the Pakistani state.

Is the military meddling or taking a backseat?

For the moment, the military appears to have taken a backseat, noted Qadri. “We welcome the fact that the military has said it will support the election. So far, they have stood out of the spotlight but many wonder what role they will play in influencing the process, especially in remote and volatile areas like Balochistan and the north-west tribal areas.”

Seasoned analysts note that the lack of visible meddling by the military in the 2013 poll does not necessarily mean that it is not occurring.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Peter Manikas, director for Asia programs at the National Democratic Institute, noted that, "We have no evidence that the military is interfering in elections," before adding, “But I can't say for sure. It was doing some things in the earlier elections that were not apparent to us   so there is always a possibility."

Tribal areas and Balochistan overlooked - again

While security and the military’s position have dominated headlines, the situation in the remote tribal areas has once again slipped under the national radar.

Officially known as FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas), the regions near the Afghanistan border are traditionally known as “ilaka ghair” – or land of the lawless.

Before 2011, political parties were legally banned from this remote zone.

In 2011 however, Zardari’s administration extended the Political Parties Act to the tribal areas, enabled national parties to contest the elections in the much-overlooked areas for the first time in Pakistani history.

But the historic policy change in tribal areas has been undermined by poor implementation, corruption and security fears.

National parties have provided tickets to the very “maliks” – or elders who were paid cash handouts to maintain the peace under the old, colonial-era system.

The Taliban’s brutal targeting of the ANP – a leftist party that represents the Pashtun population – has seriously hampered the democratic process in the region.

Meanwhile, systemic issues such as the dominance of Punjab in Pakistani politics and the marginalization of other provinces such as Balochistan have not been addressed.

In the 272-member National Assembly, for instance, Punjab holds 148 seats while Balochistan has only 14. FATA has 12 seats.

The security situation is also a far bigger threat in the tribal areas than in provinces such as Punjab, raising the prospect of a low voter turnout.

“The tribal areas are very much in the periphery and it’s not clear how freely voters in these areas can vote for their candidates, especially women,” said Qadri. “It’s also true that the issue of representation of this region has not been addressed including with respect to the human rights situation which remains very poor.”

The new Pakistani government – when it comes to power – will face immense challenges in a country with a massive fiscal deficit, growing unemployment and frequent power cuts.

But these challenges have not detered millions of Pakistanis from braving the odds to cast their votes in this historic poll.

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