Vote counting starts in crucial Pakistani election

Vote counting got under way on Monday after a lacklustre turnout in Pakistan’s parliamentary elections, which passed off relatively peacefully despite fears of sabotage by Islamic militants.

With his future hanging in the balance, President Pervez Musharraf resolved to work with the new civilian government—widely tipped to be led by the party of his slain rival Benazir Bhutto.

An overwhelming victory by the opposition, including Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), could leave Musharraf politically vulnerable and even lead to his impeachment.

Musharraf’s political allies were widely forecast to lose their grip over the country’s Parliament amid public antipathy over his recent declaration of emergency rule and purging of the judiciary to safeguard his controversial re-election as president in October.

“It is the fate of the Pakistan People’s Party that it will win, and we will change the system after winning,” said Bhutto’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari, after casting his vote in his home town of Nawab Shah.

Election officials said partial returns would be available late on Monday, but final official returns were not expected for two more days.

Nationwide voter turnout figures were unavailable but reports from across the country suggested that most of the 81-million registered voters stayed at home.

Ayaz Baig, the election commissioner in Pakistan’s most populous province, Punjab, estimated turnout in his area at 30% to 40%—slightly lower than in the 2002 elections. In Baluchistan province, turnout was estimated at about 35%, election official Sono Khan Baluch said.

Sarwar Bari, who leads Pakistan’s non-profit Free and Fair Elections Network, which had 20 000 observers, said initial reports from the field indicated voter turnout was about 35%—which would be the same as 1997, the lowest in Pakistan’s history.

Manipulation

Opposition officials warned the government against trying to manipulate the results.

“People came out today and they voted for us. But we are hearing that their votes will be stolen after darkness, and we will not tolerate it,” said Shahbaz Sharif, president of his brother Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N party.
“Those who want to rob our votes should listen that we will not allow them to do it,” he told Geo television.

Musharraf promised to work with the new government regardless of who won the vote, after a year of turmoil that has seen an explosion in Taliban militancy and growing public disaffection with Pakistan’s support of the United States-led war on terror.

“I will say from my side, whichever political party will win, whoever will become prime minister and chief ministers, congratulations to them on my behalf. And I will give them full cooperation as president whatever is my role,” Musharraf told state television.

More than 470 000 police and soldiers were deployed nationwide to provide security after a wave of suicide bombings, including Bhutto’s December 27 assassination, which forced a six-week delay in the vote. A bomb over the weekend also left 46 dead near the Afghan border.

But no major attacks were reported on Monday, although there was scattered violence between rival political factions. At least 12 people were killed and dozens wounded since Sunday night in Punjab, including a provincial assembly candidate from Sharif’s opposition party, officials said.

Two people were killed and 10 injured in clashes between rival political groups in Sindh province, and another nine were hurt in Baluchistan province, officials said.

“Given all the violence in the run-up to the vote, I think the Election Commission and the international community will be relieved that the scale of violence on election day was not greater,” said Staffan Darnolf, of the International Foundation for Election Systems, which is advising the commission.

Two public opinion surveys by US groups have suggested that if the elections are fair, Bhutto’s party would finish first, followed by Sharif’s party. The pro-Musharraf party—the Pakistani Muslim League-Q (PML-Q)—trailed in third place.

But the PML-Q still predicted it would fare strongly in rural areas of Punjab, where allegiance to feudal landlords, rather than a party’s profile, can determine how people vote.

Opposition politicians have accused the government of planning to rig the balloting, and have threatened street protests. Musharraf, who recently ceded his command of Pakistan’s powerful army, has warned he would not tolerate such protests.

Enthusiasm

Despite the stakes, public enthusiasm appeared to wane after Bhutto’s assassination, which deprived the race of its most charismatic figure.

“I was already disillusioned with politics and it only deepened after the death of Ms Bhutto,” said housewife Rifat Ashraf, who was relaxing at a park in the city of Lahore. “There are three voters in our family, and they are all here having a picnic.”

Conservative views dissuaded women voters in some parts of the north-west. At one segregated polling station on the outskirts of the city of Peshawar, staff reported that none of the 1 000 women on the electorate roll voted because men opposed it.

But while fears of attack warded off some voters, sympathy for Bhutto and disaffection over rising food prices drove others to exercise their democratic rights.

“My vote is for the PPP,” said Munir Ahmed Tariq, a retired police officer in the town of Nawab Shah. “If there is rigging this time, there will be a severe reaction. This is a sentiment of this nation.”

Pakistan has lurched in its 60-year history between weak civilian governments and military rule—including the period since Musharraf’s takeover in a 1999 coup.

“This is about Pakistan and the government’s relationship with its people, and it is about Pakistan’s ability to show the world that it has a credible election, therefore a credible government,” said US Senator John Kerry as he observed voting in Lahore.

The last general elections in 2002, which installed a pro-Musharraf Parliament, were widely regarded as flawed and lawmakers have provided little check on the president’s dominance. But with his power—and popularity—now diminished, the incoming Parliament could have more leverage.

Inflation, power failures and insecurity were key issues for voters.

In the southern city of Karachi, housewife Nargis Hamid said she was just voting for “peace” because the country could not progress without it. In the city of Multan, Fatima Bibi (45) said she supported Sharif’s party to cut the price of flour and cooking oil.

Mohsin Ali (24), a business administration student in Lahore, said he cast his ballot at random to show support for democracy and contempt for Pakistan’s notoriously corrupt politicians.

“They are all simply seeking power and once they are in power we are nobody,” said Ali, wearing a trimmed beard and a prayer cap. “Democracy has not been given a chance. Any time anything happens, the military steps in.”

In the remote border region of Bajur—considered a possible hiding place of Osama bin Laden and his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri—hundreds of Pashtun tribesmen turned out to vote at a polling place set up inside a government college, and dismissed the threat of attack.

“We are not afraid of the situation. Death comes only once,” said farmer Amanat Shah. A nearby segregated polling station for women was empty—a reflection of conservative attitudes in Pakistan’s tribal belt.—Sapa-AP

Associated Press writers Stephen Graham in Lahore, Zarar Khan in Nawab Shah, and Sadaqat Jan and Munir Ahmad in Islamabad contributed to this report

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