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Voting under way in Pakistan

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) — Pakistanis began voting Monday for a new parliament in elections shadowed by fears of violence and questions about the political survival of President Pervez Musharraf — America’s key ally in the war on terror.

Musharraf was re-elected last October to a new five-year term, but the retired general faces growing public anger over his moves last year to declare emergency rule, purge the judiciary and curb independent media.

The parliamentary elections are broadly seen as a referendum on his eight years of rule — including his alliance with the United States that many Pakistanis oppose. An overwhelming victory by the opposition would leave Musharraf politically vulnerable, even at risk of impeachment.

The vote takes place against the backdrop of escalating Taliban militancy that has spread from volatile tribal regions near the Afghan border to major cities.

Violent rivalry between political parties also stalks elections in Pakistan. Before voting began Monday, one provincial assembly candidate died of his wounds from an overnight shooting in the eastern city of Lahore. Watch one political analyst discuss Pakistan’s future after the election

Public opinion surveys have suggested that if the vote is fair, the Pakistan People’s Party of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto will finish first, followed by another opposition party led by ex-premier Nawaz Sharif.

The pro-Musharraf party — the Pakistani Muslim League-Q — is trailing a distant third, according to the surveys.

Sharif, who was ousted by Musharraf in a 1999 military coup, warned Sunday that if the results are rigged, the opposition will launch a nationwide protest movement from which those rigging it will not be able to escape.

For his part, Musharraf has warned he would not tolerate protests by disappointed opposition parties after the election. That could set the stage for a dangerous confrontation in this nuclear-armed nation.

The election was delayed six weeks after Bhutto died in a suicide gun and bombing attack in Rawalpindi on December 27. Since her death, the campaign has been overshadowed by the fear of violence, which tamped down public rallies and took much of the spirit out of the contest.

A series of deadly suicide bombings have left hundreds dead in past weeks, including at least 40 who died Saturday in a suicide car bomb attack against a campaign rally in northwest Pakistan. More than 470,000 police and soldiers have been deployed throughout the country to guard against further attacks.

Early Monday, a bomb exploded in a school to be used as a polling station in the volatile district of Swat, shattering windows but hurting no one, local police officer Shams-ur Rehman said.

In Lahore, gunmen opened fire late Sunday on supporters of Sharif’s opposition party in two separate incidents, killing two men and wounding 12 other people, police said. It was not clear who carried out the attacks.

The dead included Asif Ashraf, a provincial candidate for Sharif’s party, and one of his guards, said party spokesman Khawaja Hassan.

This is part of the intimidation and harassment of our voters, and no one else but the present government is responsible for this. But we are not afraid, and our voters will certainly go to the polls, he said.

With international pressure rising, government officials sought to reassure the public that the vote would be fair and peaceful. Information Minister Nisar Memon warned Sunday that if anyone tries to create a law and order situation, he will be dealt with sternly, Memon told reporters.

Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari, appealed for national unity.

I think we have reached the breaking point where if we don’t band together we will lose this great nation which we call Pakistan today, Zardari said Sunday during a speech in Islamabad.

Still, many Pakistanis remained suspicious, given the country’s long history of rigged elections.

As voting materials were being distributed to polling centers, police on Sunday arrested a ruling party supporter and seized 500 ballot papers that he allegedly was carrying in a car in the Bhutto stronghold of Sindh province, according to regional police official Liaqat Ali.

Some analysts fear that recent opinion polls may have raised false expectations among the opposition, which could lead to violence if the vote count does do not match up with the surveys.

One Western diplomat said the pro-Musharraf party still retains the support of many powerful landowning families in Punjab, the most populous province and the key electoral battleground. Poor farmers traditionally follow the advice of their landlords on how to vote — regardless of personal views.

The diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of commenting on Pakistani affairs, predicted that the two opposition parties would fall short of enough seats to form a government. The diplomat said the country could end up with a broad coalition possibly including the ruling party — a move that would block any move to impeach Musharraf.
Voting under way in Pakistan – found here.


February 18, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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