May 11, 2013

Attacks kill 29 as Pakistanis stream to polls

Despite the violence, 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.

By ATIF RAZA and MUNIR AHMED The Associated Press


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.

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