ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – A suicide car bomb outside a Pakistani election candidate’s office killed 37 people in the violent northwest on Saturday, the last day of campaigning for an election meant to complete a transition to civilian rule.
Separately, police in the south of the country said they had foiled another attack planned for polling day on Monday.
Campaigning for the elections to a new parliament and provincial assemblies has been overshadowed by security fears, especially since former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was killed in a gun and suicide bomb attack on December 27. Opposition politicians have also complained of vote rigging.
The poll could spell trouble for President Pervez Musharraf, a key U.S. ally who stepped down as army chief in November, if voters elect a parliament hostile to him.
Voting was postponed from January 8 after Bhutto’s assassination, which raised fears about the nuclear-armed country’s stability.
Saturday’s bomb attack in the town of Parachinar, in the Kurram region on the Afghan border, occurred as supporters of a candidate backed by Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party were going into his office after a rally, witnesses said.
“We have rechecked and found that 37 people were killed and over 90 wounded,” said Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema. He said it was a suicide car bomb.
The northwest has been hit by a surge of violence since July and while some attacks have taken place in all major cities there are fears of more.
Police in the southern city of Hyderabad said they had arrested three suspected suicide bombers believed to be planning attacks on polling stations and seized 10 kg (22 lb) of explosives and a suicide bomb jacket.
The violence in what has been one of the country’s bloodiest election campaigns has unnerved politicians and voters, and turnout on Monday could be low despite the deployment of more than 80,000 troops.
Pakistanis are also concerned about rising prices and shortages of basic commodities such as flour, and ever more frequent power cuts. Many are disillusioned with politicians.
“It’ll be very difficult to change this country,” said Mohammad Abbas, who works in a rice shop in Sabboki town in Punjab province. “Whatever the politicians do they do for themselves, not for change.”
Campaigning ends at midnight. Sunday is a cooling-off day.
The elections follow months of political turmoil over the increasingly unpopular Musharraf’s efforts to stay in power.
Two-time prime minister Bhutto had been hoping to win and her party is expected to reap a sympathy vote.
But with none of the main parties — the PPP, the Pakistan Muslim League that backs Musharraf, and the party of another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif — expected to secure a majority, a coalition between two of the three is likely.
Opposition parties say Musharraf’s allies have been engaged in widespread pre-poll rigging.
Sharif and Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari, who is leading her party into the vote, met in Lahore on Saturday and warned of trouble if they were robbed of victory.
“If the opposition is deprived of its rightful place in the elections, I think that will be very dangerous. … It will throw the country into a very chaotic situation,” Sharif told a news conference.
Zardari told reporters he expected to win but he doubted the vote would be fair. “If they want to rig the election, that we will not take sitting down,” he said.
Asked about his talks with Sharif, Zardari said: “We discussed the fact that we can have a broad-based government … the political forces can take responsibility for the country.”
Musharraf rejects complaints of rigging and says procedures have been refined to prevent cheating.
He said on Saturday he was positive the vote would be fair and peaceful and that he hoped for a stable government.
“We will ensure a successful fight against terrorism and extremism and we will ensure sustaining economic growth,” the state news agency reported Musharraf as saying.
Nearly 81 million people, about half the population, are registered to vote. Several hundred foreign observers will be monitoring but they have not been allowed to conduct exit polls.