ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, (AP) – Pakistanis voted Monday for a new parliament in elections shadowed by fears of violence and questions about the political survival of President Pervez Musharraf — America’s key ally in the war on terror.
The vote was delayed six weeks after former prime minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated on Dec. 27, and polls opened Monday amid tight security.
“We pray to God that there is peace,” said Kanwar Mohammed Dilshad, deputy chief of the Election Commission. “We pray for record turnout.”
The start of voting was slow in major cities such as Islamabad and Lahore. But 10 men stood in line at a polling station early Monday in Nawab Shah, the southern hometown of Bhutto’s widower, who is now the leader of her Pakistan Peoples Party.
“My vote is for the PPP,” said Munir Ahmed Tariq, a retired police officer. “If there is rigging this time, there will be a severe reaction. This is a sentiment of this nation.”
The outcome remained tough to call because of the scarcity of reliable polls, but Musharraf, who was re-elected last October to a new five-year term, faces growing public anger over his moves last year to declare emergency rule, purge the judiciary and curb independent media. An overwhelming victory by the opposition would leave him politically vulnerable, even at risk of impeachment.
Two public opinion surveys by U.S. groups have suggested that if the election is fair, Bhutto’s party will finish first, followed by another opposition party led by ex-premier Nawaz Sharif. The pro-Musharraf party — the Pakistani Muslim League-Q — is trailing in third.
Anti-Musharraf politicians repeated charges Sunday — denied by officials — that the government plans to rig the balloting in favor of the ruling party.
Sharif, who was ousted by Musharraf in a 1999 military coup, warned that if the results are rigged, the opposition will launch a nationwide protest movement “from which those rigging it will not be able to escape.”
But the PML-Q still predicts it will fare strongly in rural areas of the largest province, Punjab, where allegiances to feudal landlords, rather than a party’s profile, can determine how people vote.
Musharraf has warned he would not tolerate protests by disappointed opposition parties. That could set the stage for a dangerous confrontation in this nuclear-armed nation, already assailed by Taliban militancy that has spread from volatile tribal regions near the Afghan border to major cities.
A series of deadly suicide attacks have left hundreds dead in past weeks, including 46 who died Saturday in a car bombing against a campaign rally in northwest Pakistan.
More than 470,000 police and soldiers have been deployed throughout the country to guard against further attacks. The government is promising a free and fair vote and tight security.
Early Monday, a bomb exploded in a school to be used as a polling station in the volatile district of Swat, shattering windows but hurting no one, local police officer Shams-ur Rehman said.
In Lahore, gunmen opened fire late Sunday on supporters of Sharif’s opposition party in two separate incidents, killing two men and wounding 12 other people, police said. It was not clear who carried out the attacks.
The dead included Asif Ashraf, a provincial candidate for Sharif’s party, and one of his guards, said party spokesman Khawaja Hassan.
“This is part of the intimidation and harassment of our voters and no one else but the present government is responsible for this. But we are not afraid and our voters will certainly go to the polls,” he said.
Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari, appealed for national unity.
“I think we have reached the breaking point where if we don’t band together we will lose this great nation which we call Pakistan today,” he said Sunday.
Still, many Pakistanis remained suspicious, given the country’s long history of rigged elections.
As voting materials were being distributed to polling centers, police on Sunday arrested a ruling party supporter and seized 500 ballot papers that he allegedly was carrying in a car in the Bhutto stronghold of Sindh province, according to regional police official Liaqat Ali.