ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Pakistanis began voting today for a new parliament in elections shadowed by fears of violence and questions about the political survival of President Pervez Musharraf – a key U.S. 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 today 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.”
Two public opinion surveys by U.S. groups have suggested that if the election is fair, Bhutto’s party will finish first, followed by an 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.”
Early today, 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 people, police said.
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.