Polls open for Pakistani vote

Fears of violence overshadowed Pakistan’s general election on Monday with 80 000 troops backing up police to watch over a vote that could return a Parliament set on driving President Pervez Musharraf from office.

The election should have happened last month, but the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto after a political rally in Rawalpindi on December 27 forced a delay.

Polls opened at 8am (3am GMT) and will close at 5pm. (1200 noon GMT).

The death of Bhutto, the most progressive, Western-friendly politician in a Muslim nation rife with anti-American sentiment, raised concern about stability in the nuclear-armed state, and the vote is being keenly watched by allies and neighbours.

Voting got off to a slow start in the city of Rawalpindi where political party agents failed to show up on time and Election Commission officials had to wait for them to witness the sealing of ballot boxes.

“I’ve come on time but there are no party agents” said one angry man waiting to vote, Shamim Sadiq, who said he had come early because he was worried about security.

“Who should we blame, the government or the parties?” asked Sadiq, one of several voters waiting at the polling station.

Musharraf has lost much popularity over the past year because of his manoeuvres to hold on to power which included a clash with the judiciary and the imposition of six weeks of emergency rule late last year.

Many Pakistanis are also blame the government for rising prices and shortages of the staple food flour and all too frequent power cuts.

There is a security scare in large parts of Pakistan, where Musharraf has ruled since coming to power as a general in a coup in 1999, and a suicide attack on supporters of Bhutto’s party killed 47 people in a town near the Afghan border on Saturday.

Well over 450 people have died in militant-related violence so far this year, and fear could lead to a low turnout that would probably help Musharraf’s allies.

Coalition seen

The other worry is rigging, which could prompt opposition parties to reject the result and call for street protests, raising concern over how the powerful army would react.

Otherwise, a sympathy vote is expected to help Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) emerge as the largest party in the 342-seat National Assembly.

Results are expected to start emerging towards midnight and trends should be clear late on Tuesday morning.

Most analysts doubt the PPP can win a majority. Who it chooses for coalition partners will be vital to Musharraf’s future.

“We will try and take all friends and foes together,” Bhutto’s widower Asif Ali Zardari and co-chairperson of the PPP, said in a speech on the eve of the vote.

An alliance between the PPP and the other main opposition party, led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, is what Musharraf dreads as Sharif is intent on bringing him down, perhaps through impeachment by Parliament.

Analysts say Musharraf is aiming for a coalition between the PPP and the party that backs him, the Pakistan Muslim League (PML).

Western allies, who want a stable Pakistan focused on fighting al-Qaeda and the Taliban, are hoping moderate forces will prevail.

Investors in a stock market that rose 40% last year, and has shed 6% since Bhutto’s death, feel the same.

The country of 160-million people has alternated between civilian and army rule throughout its 60-year history.
- Reuters

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