Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Vote in Pakistan May Not Yield Clear Winner

Vote in Pakistan May Not Yield Clear Winner

By Jane Perlez and Carlotta Gall

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Lahore, Pakistan - Fearful of violence and deterred by confusion at polling stations, Pakistanis voted Monday in parliamentary elections that may fail to produce a clear winner and could result in protracted post-election political skirmishing.

A number of clashes among polling officials and voters resulted in 10 people killed and 70 injured, according to Pakistani television channels.

Voter turnout was low; in the North West Frontier Province, which abuts the lawless tribal areas, turnout was only 20 percent, according to election officials. In Peshawar, the provincial capital, Islamic militants prevented many women from voting. Election official estimated that only 523 of 6,431 registered female voters at six polling stations cast ballots.

In Lahore, the political capital of Punjab province, lines were thin, and many voters complained they could not find their names on the voting lists.

But as the polls closed at 5 p.m. local time, election officials said that nationwide voting had been relatively calm compared to past elections.

"We had more violence in one by-election in Karachi last year than across the country today," said Staffan Darnolf, the country director for the International Foundation for Election Systems, a non-partisan group based in the United States that has been advising Pakistan for more than year on election procedures.

At stake in the election is the question of what kind of elected government will emerge in Pakistan after eight years of military rule under President Pervez Musharraf.

Mr. Musharraf, who stepped down as army chief last November after being re-elected to another five year term, has seen his popularity plummet as the country has faced a determined insurgency by the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and a deteriorating economy.

Analysts were uncertain whether the two opposition parties, the Pakistan Peoples Party of the assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and the Pakistan Muslim League led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, would make a commanding showing Monday.

The two parties were handicapped during the election campaign by the death of Ms. Bhutto, restrictions on campaigning for security reasons, and the fact that their leadership had been in exile for the last eight years.

The party that has supported Mr. Musharraf, the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, was expected to fare more poorly than in the last parliamentary elections five years ago. But analysts said it would almost certainly have enough votes to form a coalition government, most probably with the Pakistan Peoples Party.

A low voter turnout would benefit Mr. Musharraf's party, they said.

Nervousness about suicide bombers was most palpable in Peshawar, the capital of the North West Frontier Province.

"We were thinking of not coming, people are afraid because of bombs and suicide bombers," said Huma Shaqwell, 22, a college student.

Heavily armed police were posted at many polling stations, and more than 80,000 soldiers were deployed by the army to keep law and order.

But hot tempers and deep suspicions about vote rigging created a tense election day, marked in some places by the temporary closure of polling stations to restore calm.

The voting got off to a poor start in Punjab, the most important province, with 148 of the 272 contested parliamentary seats. On election eve night, a Pakistan Muslim League-N candidate for the provincial assembly, Chaudhry Asif Ashraf, was shot to death, and three others injured when gunmen opened fire on his car.

In Lahore, Fasih Ahmed, a businessman, said that by noon he had still not found his name on any list at the polling station.

In the general atmosphere of insecurity in Pakistan, he was nervous, he said, standing in the open on the street as he waited to check voting lists.

Early in the day, voting in Rawalpindi, the sprawling city adjacent to the capital Islamabad, was sluggish.

"Of course people are scared," said Naheed Khan, a longtime assistant to Ms. Bhutto who was traveling with her in her car when she was killed.

"The government has failed to control the law and order situation," she said.

Nevertheless, Ms. Bhutto's party would prevail, she said. "If there is no government rigging, the Peoples Party will win because people want to come out in her memory," she said, wiping away tears as she listened to Ms. Bhutto's voice from a speech played over loud speakers in the street.

A number of those voting in Rawalpindi said they wanted change.

"We know who is going to win, "Q" is going to win, by cheating," said Ammar Khalid, 23, an economics student, referring to the Pakistan Muslim League-Q which backs Mr. Musharraf. "But we are still voting, for P.P.P.," he said. "We want that there should not be a dictator, he is illegal, and unconstitutional," he said of Mr. Musharraf.

"You will see the change," said Danish Sardar, 26, a businessman who voted for Mr Sharif's party. "The tiger will bring it," he said, referring to Mr. Sharif's party, which has the symbol of a tiger on the ballot paper.

In Gujrat, the stronghold of the Chaudhry clan who are the most powerful supporters of Mr. Musharraf, several polling stations were closed for periods of time because of arguments over voter lists.

In many places in Gujrat, basic election commission rules were flouted as police stood inside polling stations, and many polling stations looked like campaign headquarters for the incumbent candidate, Chaudhry Shujaat, who is also chairman of the Pakistan Muslim League-Q.

Numerous green flags of his party decorated the entrance to polling places. Men in civilian clothes with arm bands saying "special security" and carrying long sticks patrolled many of the schools that were serving as voting stations. The men said they had been hired to work by the local government which is controlled by a relative of Mr. Shujaat.

A worker for Ahmad Mukhtar, the Pakistan Peoples Party challenger to Mr. Shujaat, complained that the procedures at one of the biggest polling stations were so chaotic that voters had been turned away.

"By 11:30, only 70 votes have been cast, and 100 people have been turned away," the worker, Shahida Naeem, who is the sister of the candidate, said as she argued with female polling officials.

Groups of international observers, including three United States senators and a team of more than 100 observers from the European Union, watched the voting at various places across the country.

One of the senators, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., of Delaware, said that if the vote went smoothly, he would argue for increased funding for economic development in Pakistan. "If the vote is viewed as credible, there should be a democratic dividend," Mr. Biden said.

Mr. Biden said he was prepared to recommend that the $500 million that Pakistan now receives annually from the United States for development be tripled to $1.5 billion a year if it was a fair election.

But, he said, if the poll was deeply flawed, he would seek to curtail Washington's large military support of Pakistan, particularly expensive weapons.

In order for Washington and Pakistan to forge a successful strategy against the insurgency, it was critical, he said, that a democratically elected government emerge from the election that could rally popular support against the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

Jane Perlez reported from Lahore, Pakistan, and Carlotta Gall from Islamabad, Pakistan. David Rohde contributed reporting from Peshawar, Pakistan, and Salman Masood from Rawalpindi, Pakistan.

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