Saturday, May 11, 2013

Pakistan history in the making

Election violence: Pakistani relatives mourn over the dead body of a blast victim at a hospital following a bomb explosion in Karachi.

Election violence: Pakistani relatives mourn over the dead body of a blast victim at a hospital following a bomb explosion in Karachi. Photo: AFP

Pakistan began counting votes from its landmark parliamentary election after polls were extended for an hour to enable long lines of people to take part.

There were no immediate estimates of voter turnout. The first provisional results may come around midnight.

Before midday on election day, four separate blasts had killed 10 people and injured at least 40. A bomb designed to kill female voters was detonated at a Peshawar school that had been designated as a women's-only polling place. Eight people were injured. 

Pakistani women line up to enter a polling station on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan

Election day: A queue of women at an Islamabad polling station. Women were banned from voting in part of Pakistan. Photo: AP

The blasts extended a surge in poll violence that has left about 136 dead.


The Karachi blast also injured 40 people, Seemi Jamali, head of the emergency department at the city's Jinnah Hospital, said. It targeted a candidate of the Awami National Party, who wasn't hurt, police officer Shabbir Khan said. 

Never in Pakistan's 66-year independent history has the country changed from one civilian government to another by the ballot box, without a military coup or assassination derailing its fragile democracy.

These elections will be less than free and fair. Intimidation, exclusion of women and minorities, and poll violence will mar voting. Regardless, on Saturday morning millions in Pakistan took the rare chance to choose a new government.

In cities and villages, long queues formed at voting centres hours before polls opened at 8am.

Malala Yousafzai, the 15-year-old girls' education campaigner and Nobel peace prize nominee who was shot by the Taliban, urged her compatriots, especially women, to vote.

''We never realised how powerful our vote is,'' she said. ''One vote can change our future. I request all my sisters and mothers to move forward, to go to polling stations and vote. It's our right.''

But millions were excluded from voting. On election morning, there were reports that political parties had agreed to ban women voting in the religiously conservative Lower Dir region in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, in the country's north-west.

A government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed a secret deal had been struck by party chiefs to exclude women.

The million followers of the Ahmadiyya sect - declared non-Muslims by the government - were forced to sign a declaration renouncing their beliefs in order to vote. They were the only religious group so targeted and they announced a boycott.

In Balochistan, in the country's west, millions of nationalist ethnic Baloch also boycotted the election, arguing their demands for autonomy were being ignored by the central government.

The logistics of an election for which more than 86 million voters are registered to cast ballots at 70,000 polling places, stretched Pakistan's resources. Polling stations in Karachi and Lahore, Pakistan's two largest cities, reported that even as polls opened they were without ballot papers, boxes and pencils. Some polling places were unstaffed. Thousands of electors reportedly left without casting a vote.

And even before a ballot was cast, the 2013 election was already the most deadly in Pakistan's history.

The Taliban has killed more than 100 people, and injured more than 700, in election-targeted violence during a month of campaigning, and vowed to disrupt election day with a swathe of attacks.

Taliban leaders warned that an army of suicide bombers has been dispatched across the country to kill candidates, their families and electors. ''We don't accept the system of infidels which is called democracy,'' Hakimullah Mehsud said.

In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa at least three bombs were set off almost as soon as polls opened, and an electoral official, along with ballot papers, was reported missing from Karak. And a bomb blast near an election office of the secular Awami National Party in Karachi killed three people and injured about 30 Saturday morning.

Millions of voters, angry at Pakistan's moribund economy, 15-hour-a-day blackouts, and rampant corruption have switched their vote to former cricketer Imran Khan, and all over the country cars, houses and T-shirts are emblazoned with his image and cricket bat symbol.

with Bloomberg
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