15 die as Pakistanis brave Taliban to vote (Third Lead)

Islamabad, May 11 (IANS) Millions Saturday defied Taliban threats to vote in elections which will mark Pakistan’s first ever democratic transition from one elected government to another.

Voters hoped for change in a country beset with a string of problems ranging from failing economy to rising terror attacks. By the time polling ended, 15 people lay dead and dozens were injured.

Ballotting had an ominous start with at least 10 people killed and 50 injured in a huge explosion that tore through a group of voters close to a polling station in Karachi.

One voter was killed in a bombing in Balochistan. Officials said four people were killed in a clash between supporters of two candidates in the same province, Dawn reported.

Eight people were injured when a bomber targeted female voters in Peshawar city.

But nothing could deter the Pakistanis.

Eager voters waited patiently in queues to elect a new federal and four provincial governments. This is the first time an elected civilian regime has completed its five-year term since independence in 1947.

Election for 269 of the 342 seats of the National Assembly and 728 seats in the provincial assemblies were held simultaneously. With 180 million people, Pakistan has 86 million voters, including 36 million women.

There were 23,079 candidates across the country.

“We want change, we are really fed up with the old faces coming back to power every time and doing nothing for the nation,” BBC quoted 74-year-old Abdul Sattar as saying in Islamabad.

The main contenders are the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), Awami National Party and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) of former cricketer Imran Khan.

Punjab accounts for the largest chunk of the National Assembly seats. But balloting Saturday took place only for 269 seats.

The violent run-up to the elections left at least 100 people, including three candidates, dead in terror attacks and saw the daring kidnapping of former prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s son in Multan.

Taliban threats forced most political parties to confine themselves to limited public canvassing and appeals through the electronic media.

Leading Pakistani urged people to vote.

“When good people do not vote, bad people benefit,” said Chief Election Commissioner Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim after voting.

Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry too underlined the message after casting his vote.

President Asif Ali Zardari voted through postal ballot. His son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari could not vote as he was not allowed the same facility. The president’s two daughters, Aseefa and Bakhtawar, also voted by post.

Allegations of irregularities flew thick and fast.

A photograph showing a ballot box that had been forcibly emptied of ballots went viral on the internet.

The Mohajir Qaumi Movement alleged vote rigging in Karachi.

Geo News reported that the Sunni Ittehad Council and Jamaat-e-Islami would also boycott polls in Karachi. The Jamhoori Wattan Party did so in Balochistan.

PTI leader Arif Alvi accused MQM of wrongdoing and said his party workers were tortured in many areas, state-run Radio Pakistan reported.

More than 600,000 security personnel and soldiers were deployed across the country Saturday.

Teenaged rights activist Malala Yousufzai, who became an icon after being shot in the head by the Taliban, urged Pakistanis to vote.

In a letter carried by Dawn, Malala said: “If we want education, electricity and natural gas in our country, we must take a step. Let’s vote for our country… One vote can change our future.”

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