Pakistan marks democratic milestone in violence-marred poll

Attack on political party’s office in Karachi kills 10 people

An election official seals a ballot box before the start of voting at a polling station in Rawalpindi. Photograph: Mian Khursheed/Reuters

An election official seals a ballot box before the start of voting at a polling station in Rawalpindi. Photograph: Mian Khursheed/Reuters


Pakistanis voted in a landmark test of democracy today and were quickly reminded of the militant violence that plagues the country, with election-related bombings in several cities.

An attack on the office of the Awami National Party (ANP) in the commercial capital, Karachi, killed 10 people and wounded 30, followed by another blast minutes later.

An explosion destroyed an ANP office in the northwest. There were no immediate reports of casualties. Television channels also reported an explosion in the city of Peshawar.

Pakistan's Taliban, who are close to al-Qaeda, have killed over 110 people in election-related violence since April. The group, which is fighting to topple the U.S.-backed government, regards the elections as un-Islamic.

The election will bring the first transition between civilian governments in a country ruled by the military for more than half of its turbulent history. The people hope the polls will deliver change and ease frustrations with the Taliban, a feeble economy, widespread corruption, chronic power cuts and crumbling infrastructure.

"The problems facing the new government will be immense, and this may be the last chance that the country's existing elites have to solve them," said Anatol Lieven, a professor at King's College, London, and author of a book on Pakistan. "If the lives of ordinary Pakistanis are not significantly improved over the next five years, a return to authoritarian solutions remains a possibility," Prof Lieven wrote in a column in the Financial Times.

Disenchantment with the two mainstream parties appeared this week to have brought a late surge of support for former cricket star Imran Khan, who could end up holding the balance of power.

Mr Khan (60) is in hospital after injuring himself in a fall at a party rally, which may also win him sympathy votes. With no clear-cut winner, weeks of haggling to form a coalition will follow, which would raise the risk that the government is undermined by instability.

That would only make it more difficult to reverse the disgust with politicians felt among the country's 180 million people and drive through the reforms needed to revive its near-failed economy. Power cuts can last more than 10 hours a day in some places, crippling key industries like textiles, and a new International Monetary Fund bailout may be needed soon.

The Taliban have focused their anger on secular-leaning parties like the outgoing coalition led by the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and the ANP. Candidates, fearful of being assassinated, have avoid open campaigning. The army stayed out of politics during the five years of the last government, but it still sets the nuclear-armed country's foreign and security policy and will steer the thorny relationship with Washington as Nato troops withdraw from neighbouring Afghanistan next year.

The party of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif looks set to win the most seats in the one-day vote. But Mr Khan could deprive Sharif of a majority and dash his hopes for a return to power 14 years after he was ousted in a military coup, jailed and later exiled.

Pakistan's best-known sportsman, who led a playboy lifestyle in his younger days, Mr Khan is seen by many as a refreshing change from the dynastic politicians who long relied on a patronage system to win votes and are often accused of corruption.

Voters will elect 272 members of the National Assembly and to win a simple majority, a party would have to take 137 seats. However, the election is complicated by the fact that a further 70 seats, most reserved for women and members of non- Muslim minorities, are allocated to parties on the basis of their performance in the contested constituencies. To have a majority of the total of 342, a party would need 172.