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HindustanTimes Tue,02 Sep 2014
Sharif, Imran win parliament seats as Pakistan waits for change
Agencies
Lahore, May 11, 2013
First Published: 19:00 IST(11/5/2013)
Last Updated: 23:25 IST(11/5/2013)

The front-runners in Pakistan's landmark general election won their seats late Saturday after millions of people defied deadly Taliban attacks to take part in a historic democratic transition.

First results began coming through around four hours after polling stations closed at 6pm (1300 GMT), having been extended because of the large numbers of people waiting to vote on a dramatic day in which 24 people were killed.

The main issues are the tanking economy, an appalling energy crisis that causes power cuts of up to 20 hours a day, the alliance in the US-led war on Islamist militants, chronic corruption and the dire need for development.

It 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.

The front-runner is ex-prime minister Nawaz Sharif, head of the centre-right Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N), but the campaign has been electrified by cricket star Imran Khan with promises of reform and an end to corruption.

Both leaders won seats they had contested in -- Khan defeated a strong incumbent in Peshawar, while Nawaz won in the town of Sargodha in his Punjab heartland -- with the results announced within minutes of each other.

At PML-N headquarters in the eastern city of Lahore about 300 to 400 supporters who were watching the results coming in on television let out a huge cheer when Sharif's win was announced.

There was no immediate reaction from Khan, who is flat on his back in hospital with broken vertebrae after falling from the stage of an election rally on Tuesday, which prevented him from even voting.

"People have expressed confidence in Imran Khan and have rejected us," former cabinet minister and senior Awami National Party (ANP) member Ghulam Bilour told private Express TV.

The seat in Peshawar was one of four that Khan contested.

"I congratulate him," Bilour told the TV channel.

The secular ANP led the outgoing government in northwestern province Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, of which Peshawar is the capital.

With no reliable polling data, Sharif has been earmarked the most probable winner, but if PTI do well enough to become a formidable opposition there are concerns that the emergent coalition will be weak and possibly short-lived.

An election commission spokesman said turnout was more than 50% and expected to reach up to 60%, which would make it the highest since 1977.

More than 86 million people were eligible to vote for the 342-member national assembly and four provincial assemblies in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab, Sindh and Baluchistan.

Election fever gripped Lahore, where cars, motorbikes and rickshaws festooned with party banners blared out music, and voters draped in flags shouted slogans.

"We're really enjoying this moment -- people are very much happy about the chance to have change," said 50-year-old Rashid Saleem Butt.

Earlier, 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 expressed nervousness about security.

Rigging, violence
Voting in Pakistan's financial hub Karachi was marred by allegations of rigging from rival parties, and the election commission ordered a re-vote in more than 30 polling stations in one constituency over accusations of ballot stuffing.

Taliban bombers targeted an ANP candidate, killing 11 other people, including a small child, and wounding around 40, police said. Another person was killed and three wounded when a low-intensity bomb exploded in a bus elsewhere in the city.

Gunmen shot dead ten people in the restive southwest province of Balochistan, where turnout was low, while two people were killed and 11 wounded when a remote-controlled bomb exploded outside a polling station in a Peshawar suburb.

Police said five paramilitary soldiers in the west of Karachi were wounded by a suicide-bomber on an explosive-laden motorbike.

Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami boycotted polls in Karachi after accusing the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), which controls the city, of fraud and violence.

The MQM denied the allegations.

The election commission raised concerns about threats to its staff in the port city, which it says prevented them from performing their duties

But the organisation was quick to praise the polls as voting ended, with commision secretary Ishtiaq Ahmed saying: "Ninety-nine% of our job was correct and all the matters were accurate."

Analyst Imtiaz Gul said he believed high turnout was due to Khan galvanising millions of first-time voters, although he cautioned it may not necessarily translate into seats.

More than 600,000 security personnel deployed to protect the vote and Pakistan sealed its border with Afghanistan and Iran to boost security after pre-election violence killed at least 127 people, according to an AFP tally.

The outgoing centre-left PPP ran a lacklustre campaign, with its chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari too young to run and hounded by security threats.

Sharif served as prime minister from 1990-93, when he was sacked for corruption, and from 1997-99, when he was deposed by the military, although his family say he is a changed man who will this time govern more successfully.


The strong performance of Sharif and Khan will likely deal a blow to the outgoing Pakistan People's Party (PPP), placing it third.

Sharif voted in Lahore, driven in a bulletproof vehicle and greeted with roars of "long live the lion" from supporters using his nickname.

"I am confident that tonight we will start receiving good news from across the country," Sharif told reporters after casting his vote.

Disenchantment
Power in Pakistan has for decades alternated between the PML-N and the PPP, whose most prominent figure is President Asif Ali Zardari, widower of assassinated former premier Benazir Bhutto.

Opinion polls have suggested that disenchantment with the mainstream parties could mean that no one group emerges with a parliamentary majority, making the next government unstable and too weak to push through much-needed reform.

Voters were electing 272 members of the National Assembly.

To win a simple majority, a party would have to take 137 seats.

However, 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. Pakistan's Taliban, who are close to al Qaeda, have killed more than 120 people in election-related violence since April.

The group, which is fighting to topple the US-backed government, regards the election as un-Islamic.

For change
Despite the searing heat, many went to the polls excited about the prospect of change in a country that is plagued with Taliban militancy, a near-failed economy, endemic corruption, chronic power cuts and crumbling infrastructure.

"The team that we elect today will determine whether the rot will be stemmed or whether we will slide further into the abyss," prominent lawyer Babar Sattar wrote in The News daily.

Despite Pakistan's history of coups, the army stayed out of politics during the five years of the last government and threw its support behind Saturday's election.

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 in 2014.

However, some fear the military could step back in if there is a repeat of the incompetence and corruption that frustrated many Pakistanis during the last government.

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 to rescue the economy.

Analyst Imtiaz Gul said he believed high turnout was due to Khan galvanising millions of first-time voters, although he cautioned that it may not necessarily translate into seats.

More than 600,000 security personnel deployed to protect the vote and Pakistan sealed its border with Afghanistan and Iran to boost security after pre-election violence killed at least 127 people, according to an AFP tally.

In North Waziristan, a notorious Taliban stronghold, mosque loudspeakers announced that no woman would be allowed to leave their home to vote, according to local residents. Women's turnout is traditionally low in conservative areas.

The outgoing centre-left PPP ran a lacklustre campaign, with its chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari too young to run and hounded by security threats.

With no reliable polling data, Sharif has been earmarked the most probable winner, but if PTI do well enough to become a formidable opposition, there are concerns that the emergent coalition will be weak and possibly short-lived.

Sharif served as prime minister from 1990-93, when he was sacked for corruption, and from 1997-99, when he was deposed by the military, although his family say he is a changed man who will this time govern more successfully.

(With Reuters and AFP inputs)


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