ISLAMABAD — Despite attacks that killed 29 people, Pakistanis turned out in huge numbers Saturday to vote in an election that marked a historic democratic transfer of power in a country plagued by military coups.
The Pakistan Muslim League-N party, led by two-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, has long been considered the front-runner in the race. The party appeared to be moving toward a significant victory Saturday based on partial vote counts announced by Pakistan state TV.
The heavy turnout signaled a yearning for change after years of painful inflation and power cuts under the outgoing government. It also offered a sharp rebuke to Taliban militants and others who have tried to derail the election with attacks that have killed more than 150 people in recent weeks.
“Our country is in big trouble,” said Mohammad Ali, a shopkeeper who voted in the eastern city of Lahore. “Our people are jobless. Our business is badly affected. We are dying every day.”
The vote marked the first time a civilian government has completed its full five-year term and transferred power in democratic elections in a country that has experienced three coups and constant political instability since it was established in 1947.
The election is being watched closely by the United States, which relies on the nuclear-armed country of 180 million people for help fighting Islamic militants and negotiating an end to the war in neighboring Afghanistan.
Passion and energy were seen throughout Pakistan, as millions of people headed to the polls, waving flags and chanting slogans in support of their party. Some were young, first-time voters and others elderly Pakistanis who leaned on canes or friends for support as they dropped their vote in the ballot box.
One man, Bilal Masih, even came to a polling station in the central city of Multan dressed in his wedding attire, saying his bride could wait until he voted. He decorated his wedding car with flowers and a stuffed tiger, the symbol of the Pakistan Muslim League-N party he supports.
“I thought that this was my national duty,” said Masih, who was wearing a white and red turban and had garlands of flowers around his neck.
The Pakistani Taliban, which has been waging a bloody insurgency against the government for years, tried to disrupt the election because the militants believe the country’s democracy runs counter to Islam. The government responded by deploying an estimated 600, 000 security personnel across the country to protect polling sites and voters.
Many Pakistanis seemed determined to cast their ballots despite a series of gun and bomb attacks against candidates, party workers and voters in cities across the country that killed 29 people Saturday.
“Yes, there are fears. But what should we do?” said Ali Khan, who was waiting to vote in the northwestern city of Peshawar, where one of the blasts took place. “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.”
Many of the attacks in the run-up to the vote targeted secular parties. That raised concern the violence could benefit hard-line Islamists and other who take a softer line toward the militants because they were able to campaign more freely.
The secretary of the election commission, Ahmed Khan, told reporters in Islamabad that he expected the turnout in Saturday’s election to be “massive.” Many Pakistanis expressed pride that so many of their fellow citizens chose to vote.
“More political activity means more awareness,” said Nasira Jibran in Lahore. “More awareness means more accountability.”
PML-N leader Sharif is best known for testing Pakistan’s first nuclear weapon in 1998, and his party is seen to have a pro-business stance.
He was toppled in a military coup by then-army chief Gen. Pervez Musharraf in 1999 and spent years in exile in Saudi Arabia before returning to the country in 2007. His party came in second in the 2008 elections to the Pakistan People’s Party and is seen as more religiously conservative.
Sharif has faced a strong challenge from the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, led by former cricket star Imran Khan. The winner of the 1992 cricket World Cup has tapped into the frustrations of many Pakistani youths fed up with the country’s traditional politicians.
“It’s now our turn. We youngsters want our say in national affairs,” said Rubina Riaz in Lahore.
Some have suggested he could win more votes out of sympathy after suffering a horrific fall off a forklift during a campaign event Tuesday in Lahore that sent him to the hospital with three broken vertebrae and a broken rib. He didn’t vote Saturday because he couldn’t travel to his polling place.
Sharif has countered the challenge from Khan by pointing out how much more experience in government he has and touting key projects he completed while in office, including a highway between the capital Islamabad and his hometown of Lahore.
“It’s all about delivering,” said Nayyar Naseem, a voter in Lahore. “Nawaz Sharif has delivered. He is experienced.”
The election’s outcome is likely riding on the tally in the province of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous, where Sharif and Khan have been dueling for the people’s support with a series of large rallies and campaign events.
Supporters of both parties squared off Saturday in Punjab’s capital, Lahore. Sharif supporters carried stuffed tigers — the party’s election symbol — and Khan followers carried cricket bats as they chanted slogans in favor of their candidates.
As Sharif cast his ballot at a Lahore voting station, supporters serenaded him with chants of “Lion! Lion!”
“We brought change before. We will bring change again,” he said.
The outgoing Pakistan People’s Party is expected to fare poorly in this election because of unhappiness with its performance leading the last government. The party, which rose to power in 2008 in part by widespread sympathy after the death of party leader Benazir Bhutto, has carried out what many called a lackluster campaign.
Their effort has been hampered by threats of Taliban violence and a lack of high-profile figures to rally the party. Benazir Bhutto’s son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, is officially the party chairman and had been expected to play a high-profile role in the election. But he has appeared at few election events, and was out of the country Saturday.
The election commission said it was investigating reports of a lack of polling staff and materials, and threats to election commission staff in some areas of the southern city of Karachi.
The election winner will inherit a country struggling on a number of fronts. Pakistanis suffer from rolling blackouts that can be as long as 18 hours a day as well as a stuttering economy. The country is also battling Taliban militants who want to overthrow the government, while on the western border there are fears that a U.S. military departure from Afghanistan will send violence spilling over into Pakistan.
Both Khan and Sharif have favored negotiations with militants in the country’s tribal areas, and Khan has even said he would pull out troops from the borderlands if elected.
That would likely put him at odds with the country’s powerful military. While Pakistan has been under civilian rule for the last five years, the military still is considered the country’s most powerful institution and usually makes the major decisions when it comes to militancy or foreign policy issues such as Afghanistan or India.
In what appeared to be a show of support for democracy in Pakistan, the country’s most powerful military officer, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, went to the voting booth himself instead of mailing in his ballot. His gesture was broadcast live of local TV.