Defying Taliban death threats and violence that claimed 24 lives,millions of Pakistanis today voted in a landmark general election that marked the first democratic transition in the country’s 66-year history.
The Election Commission extended polling by an hour to accommodate large numbers of voters who were still present at polling stations and officials said they expected the turnout to be around 60 per cent.
A staggering 75,000 security personnel,including 5,000 troops for sensitive polling stations Taliban-dominated restive areas in northwest,were deployed to ensure smooth conduct of the exercise.
Long queues and chaotic scenes were witnessed outside thousands of polling stations across the country despite threats of attacks by the banned Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan,which said it would target the elections as they are part of the “infidel” system of democracy.
The turnout remained strong throughout the day despite a string of gun and bomb attacks in Karachi,the country’s largest city,and across Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces.
The attacks killed at least 24 people and injured dozens.
A total of 4,670 candidates are standing for the 342-member National Assembly while nearly 11,000 are running for the four provincial assemblies in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa,Punjab,Sindh and Baluchistan.
The main contenders are the PPP,which has been ruling the country,PML-N led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf headed by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan.
The PML-N and Khan’s party were the only major political forces that were able to conduct a nationwide campaign after the banned TTP warned that it would target leaders and rallies of the secular-leaning PPP,Awami National Party and Muttahida Qaumi Movement,which were part of the outgoing coalition.
The Election Commission termed the turnout as “very good” across the country in general without specifying the precise figure. The largest province of Punjab saw a huge turnout,it said.
More than 86 million people were eligible to vote in the polls. The process of counting of votes began as polling closed and the trends are expected by early morning tomorrow.
Thirteen people were killed and over 40 injured in three bomb attacks in Karachi.
The first blast went off near the election office of Awami National Party candidate Amanullah Mehsud. He escaped unhurt though several ANP workers were among the dead and injured.
The second blast went off minutes later near a polling station in the same area,triggering a stampede and disrupting voting.
Two persons were killed and several injured when a bus was targeted by the third blast at Qasba Colony in Karachi.
In the northwest,two policemen were killed and four others injured in an explosion at Toorghar in Peshawar.
Four workers of the Pakistan Peoples Party were gunned down in Charsadda while eight persons were injured when a bomb attached to a motorcycle went off outside a women’s polling station in Peshawar.
Five persons were wounded when a suicide bomber detonated his explosive vest after he was intercepted by police outside another polling station in Peshawar.
In Balochistan,three persons were killed in a clash between two rival groups at Chaman while two persons were killed when gunmen opened fire at a polling station in Kalat.
Several persons were injured in a blast in the provincial capital of Quetta.
There were also reports of clashes between supporters of rival political parties in parts of Punjab and Sindh provinces.
Women were barred from voting in the lawless North Waziristan tribal region,a stronghold of Taliban and al-Qaeda elements,and parts of Upper Dir and Swat districts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa provinces.
Announcements were made on loudspeakers of mosques early this morning that no woman would be allowed to vote,said residents of Miranshah,the main town of North Waziristan.
Pamphlets distributed in Miranshah earlier this week warned tribesmen not to let women vote.
Reports from Dir said leaders of political parties had reached an agreement that women would not be allowed to vote.
The turnout in Islamabad and Lahore was especially strong,with voters standing in queues for hours to exercise their franchise.
“I have never seen such a turnout in Lahore,especially among the women and youths. This seems to be the impact of the campaigning by Imran Khan,” said Muhammad Shafeeq,a Lahore resident.
Muhammad Imran,a 22-year-old student,told PTI he was voting to usher in peace and better economic conditions.
“We want a change. We need jobs and a better life,” he told PTI before walking into a polling station at about 5 pm.
An analyst,who did not want to be named,said Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insfa party would benefit the most from the large turnout in Punajb,which has more than half of the 272 parliamentary seats for which polls are being held.
Former premier Raja Pervez Ashraf,PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif,army chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and Chief Election Commissioner Fakhruddin G Ebrahim were among those who voted shortly after polling began at 8 am.
Footage on television showed Kayani walking into a polling station in Rawalpindi to vote.
The polling followed a bloody campaign marred by Taliban violence.
Over 100 people,including candidates,were killed in gun and bomb attacks by the Taliban and other militant groups during the campaign period.
Threats and attacks by the Pakistani Taliban forced three major parties – PPP,ANPand MQM – to dramatically curtail their campaign.
There was no official figure for today’s turnout though Election Commission Secretary Ishtiaq Ahmad Khan said it was expected to be more than 60 per cent.
Elections in Pakistan have traditionally registered low turnouts and only 44 per cent of the electorate voted in the last polls in 2008.
Provisional results are expected to come in by early tomorrow.
The outgoing government led by the PPP was the first one in Pakistan’s history to complete its full term of five years.
In the past,governments have been ousted by the army,which has ruled Pakistan for more than half of its history.