PAKISTANIS thronged to the polls yesterday, despite a backdrop of violence, in a historic vote which pitted a former cricket star against a veteran prime minister and an unpopular incumbent.
At least 22 people were killed in attacks by militants, underlining the risks faced by those who turned out to vote.
The violence was a continuation of what has been a bloody election campaign, with more than 130 people killed in bombings and shootings. Some observers are calling this one of the deadliest polls in Pakistan’s history.
Despite the bloodshed, many see the election – Pakistan’s first transition between an elected government fulfilling its term to another – as a key step to solidify civilian rule in a nation that has experienced three military coups since it was founded in 1947.
With the Pakistani Taleban threatening to target political parties, the government deployed an estimated 600,000 security personnel to protect polling sites and voters.
Many Pakistanis seemed determined to cast their ballots come what may.
“Yes, there are fears. But what should we do?” said Ali Khan, who was waiting to vote in the north-western city of Peshawar, scene of one of yesterday’s bomb attacks.
“Either we sit in our house and let the terrorism go on, or we come out of our homes, cast our vote, and bring in a government that can solve this problem of terrorism,” he added.
That determination seemed to be widespread. The secretary of the election commission, Ahmed Khan, said he expected a “massive” turnout.
The rise of former cricket star Imran Khan has reshaped the Pakistani political scene, challenging the stranglehold of the two main parties.
Khan, 60, stood against the Pakistan Muslim League-N, headed by two-time former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and the Pakistan People’s Party, led by president Asif Ali Zardari.
While Sharif has billed himself as the candidate of experience, Khan is trying to tap into the frustrations of millions of Pakistanis who want a change from the politicians who have dominated for years.
“I never voted for anyone in the past, but today my sons asked me to go to the polling station, and I am here to vote,” said Mohammed Akbar in the north-west city of Khar. “Imran Khan is promising to bring a good change, and we will support him.”
Khan survived a 15ft fall from a forklift during a campaign event on Tuesday in the eastern city of Lahore that sent him to hospital with three broken vertebrae and a broken rib. He is not believed to have voted yesterday because he could not travel to his local polling station.
Turnout will be critical to the outcome of the vote, especially among young people. Almost half of Pakistan’s more than 80 million registered voters are under the age of 35, but young people have often stayed away from the polls in the past.
Much will hinge on the province of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous, where Sharif and Khan have been duelling for support with a series of campaign events.
Even on election day yesterday the excitement was evident. In Lahore, which has not been touched by the pre-election violence seen in other parts of Pakistan, Sharif supporters carried stuffed tigers – the party’s election symbol – and Khan followers carried cricket bats as they chanted slogans in favour of their candidates. As Sharif cast his ballot at a Lahore voting station, supporters chanted “Lion! Lion!”
“We brought change before. We will bring change again,” Sharif said.
On the campaign trail, Sharif stressed his extensive political experience compared with Khan’s, and touted key projects he completed while in office, including a road between the capital Islamabad and Lahore.
“It’s better to try a lesser evil instead of trying a novice,” said one Lahore voter, Haji Mohammad Younus. “The lesser evils at least have the experience of governing.
“They might be corrupt but they have lately realised that they have to deliver if they want to survive.”
The mood remained jubilant despite the attacks.
The deadliest violence struck Karachi, where twin blasts blew up outside an office of the Awami National Party, one of three secular liberal parties that have been targeted by Taleban militants during the campaign. Ten people died in the attack and 30 were wounded. A roadside bomb in Karachi also killed one person riding in a bus of ANP supporters.
There is concern that the violence could benefit Islamist parties and those who take a softer line toward the militants, including Khan and Sharif, because they were able to campaign more freely.
The outgoing Pakistan People’s Party is likely to fare poorly after a lacklustre campaign.
Voters have declared they are fed up with five years of power cuts, rising inflation and militant attacks.
Contenders: Front-runners and also-rans
The head of the main opposition party in recent years, the Pakistan Muslim League-N, Sharif is considered the front-runner in the election and hopes to become prime minister for the third time. His party, which appeals to a pro-business base and is strongest in central Punjab province, is considered the main rival to the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) to form the next government. A coup in 1999 ousted Sharif as prime minister and he was exiled the following year. He returned to Pakistan to lead his party in the 2008 elections, which were won by the PPP.
A cricket legend-turned-politician who could have a significant impact on the vote. He founded Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or the Movement for Justice Party, more than 15 years ago, but failed to gain much traction until 2011.
That year he marked his rise as a major political player with a rally of 100,000 people in Lahore, the capital of Punjab province.
Khan has appealed to a largely young, urban constituency tired of the current politicians and the corruption that plagues the system.
It is unclear whether he can win enough seats to form the next government, or simply steal key votes from the PML-N and the PPP, especially in Punjab. That could affect who wins. Khan could win more votes out of sympathy after falling off a forklift last week.
PRESIDENT ASIF ALI ZARDARI
The president rode to power on a wave of sympathy after the 2007 assassination of his wife, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, but his tenure has been plagued by allegations of corruption.
Zardari is not running in the election but as a former head of the Pakistan People’s Party, which led the last government, he is a central figure. His unpopularity, and anger over government performance during its five-year term, is likely to damage the party. The economy is stuttering, energy shortages plague the country and Taleban militants continue to stage deadly attacks.
BILAWAL BHUTTO ZARDARI
The only son of the president and his late wife, his grandfather Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was founder of the PPP and both president and prime minister. Zardari was set to carry the torch for the Bhutto dynasty but has hardly been seen. Zardari is too young to take part – the minimum age is 25 – but was expected to rally voters. However, Taleban threats meant the Oxford-educated Zardari has spent little time on the campaign trail, leaving the PPP without a central figure.
Problems that refuse to go away
THE elections come at a time of widespread despair for Pakistan as it suffers faltering economic growth, deepening energy shortages and continued attacks by Taleban-linked militants.
The economy has grown at less than 4 per cent a year under the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which has governed for five years. That is much lower than the rates during the previous administration, which at times hovered near 7 per cent. Under the PPP, inflation hit 25 per cent but has since fallen to average around 11 per cent last year.
Electricity shortages nearly doubled under the PPP compared with the previous military administration. Some places in Pakistan suffer blackouts for up to 18 hours a day during summer months. There have also been increased shortages of natural gas, on which many people rely to heat their homes during the winter months and cook. Spending on energy subsidies and failing public enterprises has helped drain government coffers, already depleted by its failure to collect taxes effectively. The combination of these factors means the government will probably have to seek yet another unpopular bailout from the International Monetary Fund.
The military has launched numerous operations against the Pakistani Taleban in the north-west tribal region along the Afghan border during the past five years. Analysts say these operations and US drone attacks have helped significantly reduce overall levels of violence in 2011 and 2012. But the Taleban remains a potent threat. During the election campaign, it has carried out near daily attacks against candidates and offices, leaving 120 people dead. The militants mostly targeted secular parties that supported operations against the Taleban. Sectarian violence by radical Sunni Muslim militants against minority Shiites has also significantly worsened in recent months.