Pakistan went to the polls on Saturday with initial reports suggesting a higher than expected turnout in most constituencies, giving rise to expectations that Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party will do better than earlier predicted. However, while it is very early to predict the results - which should start shaping up by Sunday morning, what most analysts agree is that thanks to the PTI, the enthusiasm witnessed in Saturday’s polls in the country was unmatched.
“We have young and old people voting. I have seen a person coming in on a stretcher to vote. There is a carnival atmosphere prevailing with people clapping when someone very old or someone with some disability comes in to vote,” said 75 year old Muhammad Barkat who said that he had been persuaded by his son to vote for the PTI.
The Election Commission of Pakistan gave an estimate of 30% of voters turnout by midday giving rise to expectations that by the close of polling on Saturday, voter turnout would be the highest in the country’s electoral history – possibly over 60%.
The turnout reflects the defiance by most voters to threats issued by the Tehreek-e-Taliban to boycott the elections. The TTP did its best to dissuade voters as on Saturday morning a bomb attack claimed by the Taliban killed 11 people in Karachi . Voter turnout in Karachi, however, remained unaffected and reflected national trends as thousands queued up to cast their votes.
The ANP candidate targeted by the TTP was Amanullah Mehsud, escaped unhurt, police said, but 11 other people were killed, including a small child, and around 40 people wounded.
The favourite for Prime Minister remains Nawaz Sharif of the PML-N who predicted that a high turnout went in favour of his party. But analysts say that the major beneficiary would be Imran Khan and his Tehreek-e-Insaf party, which has managed to harness the new or first time voter.
While voting in Lahore, Nawaz Sharif predicted that his party would sweep the polls. “There is good news happening. Prepare for more good news in the coming hours,” he told reporters in Lahore.
Violence was also reported from parts of Punjab where rival groups clashed at polling stations. Five casualties were reported in the skirmishes. The army was called in at different polling stations and the Election Commission asked the military to send more troops to Karachi for polling duties.
Irshad Ghani, a voter in Karachi’s posh Defence society said that he had never seen such a turnout on polling day. “I am seeing people here who I don’t even see at Eid prayers,” he said with a laugh, adding “more than ever I am happy to see so many young people at the polling station.”
Thousands of volunteers from different parties helped candidates select their polling booths and provided them with refreshments as they waited in never ending queues to vote. The Pakistan Telecom Authority also informed that over 40 million Pakistanis had checked their polling details via SMS from a pre-announced service. Long queues formed outside polling stations in Pakistan’s main cities where people spoke enthusiastically about exercising their democratic right and voting for change, although some people expressed nervousness about security.
More than 86 million people are eligible to vote at 70,000 polling stations for the 342-member national assembly and four provincial assemblies in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab, Sindh and Baluchistan. The vote marks the first time that an elected civilian administration has completed a full term and handed power to another through the ballot box in a country where there have been three military coups and four military rulers.
In most polling stations there was a mood of festivity as people said that they wanted to bring change in the country. Given the large turnout, timings were extended by the Commission to 6pm nationwide. The Election Commission also took note of complaints from Karachi where it conceded “suspicious activity had been going on.”
In Karachi, in some constituencies polling time was extended till 8pm as some returning officers were kidnapped on their way to their polling stations. In other parts of the country no such incidents were reported.
Some regional and fringe parties alleged wide scale rigging in the polls and announced their boycott. The right wing Jamat-e-Islami announced a boycott in Karachi where it alleged that large scale rigging was carried out by the Karachi-based Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) party. The MQM denies the allegation.
In North Waziristan, local representatives of all major parties got together and announced that no woman would be allowed to leave their home to vote, according to local residents. While there are no exit polls in Pakistan, analysts predict a neck-and-neck tie between Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan in the elections. The stiffest competition is taking place in Punjab province, where the PML-N enjoys a lead.