Feb. 18 (Bloomberg) — Voters queued to cast their ballot in the final hour of Pakistan’s parliamentary elections today after a campaign marred by violence and allegations of rigging.
Voting in four constituencies was postponed because of terror attacks and the deaths of candidates as the deployment of more than 80,000 military personnel failed to prevent political violence.
“We were here to vote, but we plan to leave as soon as possible,” said Sajjad Hussain, a 45 year old accountant, who came to vote in North Karachi. “The presence of paramilitary forces is good, but it also indicates the prevailing danger, especially of bombings.”
President Pervez Musharraf’s government tightened security for the elections that were postponed for six weeks because of the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto. The government has slapped curbs on the media amid allegations his party will try to rig the election.
The Musharraf-backed parties “will create a security situation throughout the country so that people don’t come out of their houses to vote,” said Farhatullah Babar, a spokesman for the largest opposition Pakistan Peoples Party. Former premier and PPP chief Bhutto was killed after an election rally on Dec. 27.
Ten people were killed and 60 others wounded in incidents of violence across several cities, AAJ television channel reported. Voting was stopped in 12 polling stations after rival parties exchanged gunfire, it said. Many women were barred by tribal elders from voting in the conservative North West Frontier Province, near the Afghanistan border, it said.
Police and paramilitary forces were deployed in polling stations across the country and security personnel patrolled the streets of the commercial capital Karachi on motorbikes and vans.
The three biggest parties in the election are the PPP, Pakistan Muslim League (Q) and Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Musharraf said he will cooperate with the party that wins the election, state-run Pakistan Television reported. The president cast his ballot in Rawalpindi this afternoon, PTV said.
More than 81 million people are registered to vote for 272 lawmakers in the 342-member Parliament. The remaining 70 seats will be filled by women and minorities picked by legislators later.
The Pakistan Peoples Party has fielded candidates for 207 National Assembly seats. Sharif’s party has contenders for 166 of the 272 seats and Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-e-Azam has candidates competing for 154 seats.
The Election Commission has postponed elections at four National Assembly, or lower house of parliament, constituencies and seven provincial assembly constituencies because of death of one of the contesting candidates or violence, according to its Web site.
The National assembly seats where voting was postponed include Benazir Bhutto’s seat in Larkana, one seat in Lahore and one in the tribal region of South Waziristan because of the death of one of the candidates, and one in the tribal area of Parachinar, following a bomb blast on Feb. 17.
The Pakistan Peoples Party is expected to win a majority of seats in its home province of Sindh. Bhutto’s party may benefit from a wave of sympathy following her assassination on Dec. 27. Neither of the two factions of the Pakistan Muslim League campaigned in Sindh.
Sharif’s party and the group backed by Musharraf are expected to compete for seats in the largest province of Punjab. The majority of votes in the North West Frontier Province, which borders Afghanistan, are expected to go to the religious parties, including Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam.
Musharraf has pledged the vote will be free and fair even after he suspended the constitution for a month and a half in November and fired top judges who opposed him.
Voter turnout is increasing and polling is taking place in a “smooth and orderly” way, Chief Election Commissioner Qazi Farooq was shown on Aaj television telling reporters.
“The situation is good, people are voting in a peaceful environment and we’ll know later tonight what the turnout was,” Farooq said.
At polling stations in the garrison town of Rawalpindi voters were frisked by special branch officers before entering. Between 10 and 15 local police were stationed inside the compounds.
If Musharraf’s party wins the most seats in today’s ballot, 79 percent of respondents said the vote would have been rigged, the Washington-based International Republican Institute forecast in an opinion poll published this month.
To ensure an election win, authorities plan to stuff ballot boxes in favor of pro-Musharraf political parties, said Siddique-ul-Farooq, a spokesman for Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League. The most serious breaches of election rules will happen when the result announcements are delayed, he said.
“Pre-poll rigging has already taken place by not allowing Nawaz Sharif to run in the elections,” said Farooq.
Musharraf changed the constitution before the last elections in 2002 barring prime ministers from serving a third term. Sharif and Bhutto both served twice as premier.
Manipulation of the electoral process by Musharraf’s government appears as intensive as in last election in 2002, said Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, executive director of the Pakistan Institute for Legislative Development and Transparency. The executive has relied this time more on civilian than military institutions, he added.
“The manner of manipulation is quite different from last time,” said Mehboob of the non-partisan, pro-democracy research and advocacy group. “But the quantum doesn’t appear any less.”