At least 35 people were killed in a suicide attack by terror group Islamic State as balloting in a violence-ravaged election to choose a new government in Pakistan ended on Wednesday.
The voting started at 8am Pakistan time at more than 85,000 polling stations and ended at 6pm. The results would be announced within 24 hours.
The polling ended on time despite calls by several major parties, including former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif-led Pakistan Muslim League-(PML-N), Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and Pakistan if Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) to extend the polling time by an hour. They had complained of “a slow voting process” and thus sought more time to facilitate voters but the Election Commission rejected the request.
Pakistan’s National Assembly comprises a total of 342 members, of which 272 will be directly elected today whereas the rest – 60 seats reserved for women and 10 for religious minorities – are selected later through proportional representation among parties with more than five per cent of the vote. A party can only form the government if it manages to clinch 172 seats in total.
Imran Khan’s party is looking to unseat ruling PML-N. PPP, led by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, is also in the race.
According to a pre-poll survey by Gallup Pakistan, Imran Khan-led PTI and PML-N are ‘neck and neck” with the PTI ahead nationally and the PML-N ahead in the key province of Punjab, Sharif’s home state.
The elections took place under the shadow of the army’s meddling in the political process and the participation of a number of militant groups which put up their candidates. Some of the most notorious extremist leaders, accused of spreading religious hatred and instigating sectarian violence, are among hundreds of candidates contesting the elections. Leading among them are Hafiz Saeed-led banned Jamat-ud Dawa’s candidates who are fighting with an aim to make Pakistan a “citadel of Islam.” Saeed was the mastermind the deadly terror attack on India’s financial capital Mumbai on November 26, 2008 that left 166 people, including foreigners dead.
Hours after polling began on Wednesday, an Islamic State suicide bomber blew himself up outside a polling station in Balochistan’s provincial capital, Quetta, killing 31 people, including policemen.
In other separate poll-related violence, four persons were killed as clashes broke out between rival groups outside several polling stations, reports said.
Nearly 10.6 crore people were eligible to vote for members of the lower House of Parliament and four provincial assemblies. The election marks the second democratic transition of power in Pakistan’s 70-year history dominated by military dictatorships.
Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa cast his vote in Rawalpindi. Nawaz Sharif’s brother Shahbaz Sharif, the PML-N president who is hoping to become the next Prime Minister, was among the first to cast his vote in Lahore.
Another former Pakistan PM Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, former Sindh chief minister Murad Ali Shah, MQM-P’s Farooq Sattar, Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP) chairman Mustafa Kamal, PTI chief and former cricketer Imran Khan, PPP co-chairman Bilawal Bhutto and Jamaat Ul Ittehad (F) chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman also cast their vote in their respective constituencies. The two Bhutto sisters Asifa Bhutto Zardari and Bakhtawar Bhutto Zardari also cast their votes.
According to the Election Commission, 3,459 candidates are contesting for 272 general seats of the National Assembly, while 8,396 candidates are running for 577 general seats of the four provincial assemblies – Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. More than 30 political parties have fielded their candidates for the elections.
For a smooth polling process, the ECP has deployed around 1.6 million staff at polling stations across the country. About 4,49,465 policemen and over 3,70,000 military personnel have been deployed for security.
A public holiday has been declared across the country today in order to facilitate the voting process.
The run up to the elections have seen a massive crackdown on the media and allegations that the military has secretly backed the campaign of Khan while targeting his political opponents.
Military has ruled Pakistan through various coups for nearly half of the country’s history since independence in 1947. Even during the civilian rule, the generals have wielded enormous power, setting the agenda for the country’s foreign and security policies.
Army chief Gen Bajwa, however, assured that the Army will only perform a facilitative role in the polls and that the polling process is to remain under the control and authority of the Election Commission.
Nawaz Sharif who was jailed earlier this month after being convicted in a corruption case, accused the military of pressuring the judiciary to convict him. Both the institutions deny the charge.
The run up to the elections was marred by a series of deadly attacks targeting candidates and campaign rallies, including the one that killed 151 people in Balochistan.
New Delhi Correspondent