Fearful Pakistan voters trust in God, not security

Updated on Feb 18, 2008 12:57 PM IST
The voting begins for delayed parliamentary election after a campaign marred by violence including Benazir's murder. In a fragile state | VideoAll set for polls | Pics'Elections a fraud' | VideoBig Idea | Amit BaruahTwo nations, two choices
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AFP | ByNasir Jaffry, Peshawar, Pakistan

Shuffling into a women's polling station beneath a flowing

burka

, Saima Zahoor says she hopes for divine protection from the wave of violence that has marred Pakistan's elections.



The housewife was one of only a few to vote in the two hours after polls opened in the northwestern city of Peshawar, close to the Afghan border where Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants have launched a string of suicide bombings.



"I am scared because of all the bombings but I am sure Allah will protect me and all the people voting today," Zahoor told AFP as she cast her ballot at Government Girls' High School Number 2.



Speaking from beneath her all-covering Islamic garment, she said that there were particular fears militants would target women's polling stations "because of the opposition in our society for women to go out and vote."



Men and women vote at separate locations throughout Pakistan, an Islamic republic.



Pakistan's election campaign has unfolded amid heightened public fears ever since the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, the Muslim world's first female prime minister, at a party rally in December.



The government says it has deployed 81,000 troops to secure voting following a series of subsequent bombings, including one targeting Bhutto supporters in a northwestern tribal town on Saturday that killed 47 people.



AFP reporters saw no queues at the 10 polling stations they visited in Peshawar. No troops could be seen but about a dozen police were on guard at each polling station.



"My family members are really angry with me because I left the house against their advice. They told me not to go and vote because of the security situation," elderly voter Alam Gul said.



"The turnout is very low so far," electoral official Taj Mohammed told AFP at one station.



Gul Meena, a woman in her 60s, said she was brought to vote by the party that she supports, the Awami National Party (ANP) -- a secular, ethnic Pashtun nationalist grouping.



Bombers targeted two ANP meetings in the run-up to the polls.



"I want to vote as soon as I can and then go home. I don't know where and when the bombers will explode themselves. God knows better," she said.



Across the street, a vendor selling steaming cups of green tea shook his head and said: "Look, both voters and customers have disappeared."



Queues were bigger in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, with dozens of people waiting outside one polling station near the public park where Bhutto was slain in a suicide attack.



In the southern port city of Karachi, many polling stations were deserted but there was a bustling atmosphere in the slum neighbourhood of Lyari, a stronghold of Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party.



"I have lived a long life and I am not afraid of bomb blasts," said 60-year-old PPP supporter Sakina Bibi, chanting "Long Live Bhutto" after she cast her vote.



"I am far less courageous than Bhutto but I would be ready to die to achieve her mission," the voter said.



Labourer Mohammad Nazir, 45, a father of four, said there were widespread security fears "but we should defy these attacks, because they are meant to keep us away from the election and we should use our right to vote."

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