Voting under way in Pakistan

Pakistanis began voting Monday for a new parliament in elections shadowed by fears of violence and questions about the political survival of President Pervez Musharraf.

Voting under way in Pakistan
Fears of violence overshadowed Pakistan's general election on Monday with 80,000 troops backing up police to watch over a vote that could return a parliament set on driving President Pervez Musharraf from office.

The election was originally scheduled for January 8 but the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto after a rally in Rawalpindi on December 27 forced a delay.

Polls opened at 8 a.m. (10 p.m. Sunday EST) and will close at 5 p.m. (7 a.m. EST).

Voting got off to a slow start. Monday has been declared a holiday with financial markets and schools closed and traffic was very thin on roads in cities across the country.

In Rawalpindi, political party agents failed to show up on time and Election Commission officials had to wait for them to witness the sealing of ballot boxes.

"Who should we blame, the government or the parties?" said one angry man waiting to vote, Shamim Sadiq, who said he had come early because he was worried about security.

Musharraf's popularity plunged over the past year because of his maneuvers to hold on to power which included purging the judiciary and imposing six weeks of emergency rule.

Many Pakistanis also blame the government for rising prices, shortages of staples and all too frequent power cuts.

There is a security scare in large parts of Pakistan, where Musharraf has ruled since coming to power as a general in a coup in 1999, and a suicide attack on supporters of Bhutto's party killed 47 people in a town near the Afghan border on Saturday.

Fear of violence could hurt turnout.

"You see suicide bombings everywhere and you can see the empty streets on polling day. It's all because of fear," said civil servant Mohammad Ijaz who was voting in the city of Lahore where three people were killed in shootings late on Sunday.

A supporter of the opposition party led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif was killed in a shooting in Punjab province shortly after polls opened, police said.

Coalition seen

The other worry is rigging, which could prompt opposition parties to reject the result and call for street protests, raising concern over how the powerful army would react.

The country of 160 million people has alternated between civilian and army rule throughout its 60-year history.

Otherwise, a sympathy vote is expected to help Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) become the largest party in the 342-seat National Assembly.

Results are expected to start emerging by midnight and trends should be clear on Tuesday morning.

Most analysts doubt the PPP can win a majority. Who it chooses for coalition partners will be vital to Musharraf.

Bhutto's widower, Asif Ali Zardari, who is co-chairman of the PPP, issued a conciliatory call for unity on the eve of the vote.

An alliance between the PPP and Sharif's party is what Musharraf dreads as Sharif is intent on bringing him down, perhaps through impeachment by parliament.

Analysts say Musharraf wants a coalition between the PPP and the party that back him, the Pakistan Muslim League.

Nearly 81 million people are registered to vote. Several hundred foreigners and thousands of Pakistanis have fanned out to monitor the vote but are not allowed to do exit polls.

A European Union team is due to give a preliminary assessment by Wednesday.

Güncelleme Tarihi: 18 Şubat 2008, 20:18