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Musharraf urges reconciliation as Pakistanis vote

Pakistan president and former army chief voted at a polling station set up in a school in the city of Rawalpindi.In a fragile state | VideoAll set for polls | Pics'Elections a fraud' | VideoBig Idea | Amit BaruahTwo nations, two choices
By Augustine Anthony | Reuters, Islamabad
UPDATED ON FEB 18, 2008 05:37 PM IST

Fears of violence kept many Pakistanis away from an election that could usher in a parliament set on driving President Pervez Musharraf from office, while Musharraf himself called for reconciliation after casting his vote.

The legislative elections were originally scheduled for January 8 but the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto after a rally in Rawalpindi on December 27 forced a delay.

Polls opened at 8 am (10 pm Sunday EST) and will close at 5 pm (7 am EST). Results are expected to start emerging by midnight and trends should be clear on Tuesday morning.

The death of Bhutto, the most progressive, western-friendly politician in a Muslim nation rife with anti-American sentiment, raised concern about stability in the nuclear-armed state.

Well over 450 people have died in militant-related violence this year.

Fear of violence kept many Pakistanis away from the polls. Witnesses in cities across the country reported a trickle of voters, despite 80,000 troops backing up police.

The Election Commission said turnout was about 15 per cent three hours after polls opened. Monday is a holiday with banks and schools closed.

Former army chief Musharraf voted at a polling station set up in a school in the city of Rawalpindi.

"We must come out of this confrontationalist approach and get into a conciliatory mode. I myself will remain committed to a politics of reconciliation with everyone," Musharraf later told reporters.

"As a president in the centre, I would like to work amicably in a reconciliatory mode with whosoever becomes prime minister."

Musharraf's popularity plunged over the past year because of his maneuvers to hold on to power, which included purging the judiciary and six weeks of emergency rule.

Many Pakistanis also blame the government for rising prices, food shortages and all-too-frequent power cuts.

Voter Azra Khalid Shaikh, heading into a polling station in the city of Karachi, said she wanted to set the country back on a path to democracy.

"This is the starting point," she said.

Fear

Security concerns affect large parts of Pakistan. A suicide attack on Bhutto party supporters killed 47 people in a northwestern town on Saturday.

"You see suicide bombings everywhere and you can see the empty streets on polling day. It's all because of fear," said civil servant Mohammad Ijaz, voting in the city of Lahore where three people were killed in shootings late on Sunday.

An intelligence official said 11 people have been killed, seven in Punjab province, and 70 wounded in election violence since voting began.

Militants set off bombs at four polling stations in the northwest, three in the Swat Valley, before polls opened but no one was injured. Army helicopters later attacked suspected militant hideouts in Swat, residents said.

The other worry is rigging, which could prompt opposition parties to reject the result and call for street protests, raising concern over how the powerful army would react.

The country of 160 million people has alternated between civilian and army rule throughout its 60-year history.

A sympathy vote is expected to help Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) become the largest party in the 342-seat National Assembly.

Most analysts doubt the PPP can win a majority. Whom it chooses for coalition partners will be vital to Musharraf.

Bhutto's widower Asif Ali Zardari, co-chairman of the PPP, issued a conciliatory call for unity on the eve of the vote. He did not speak to reporters as he voted in Sindh.

The leader of the other main opposition party, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, made a victory sign as he voted in Lahore.

An alliance between the PPP and Sharif is what Musharraf dreads as Sharif is intent on bringing him down, perhaps through impeachment. Analysts say Musharraf wants a coalition between the PPP and the Pakistan Muslim League that backs him.

Western allies, who want a stable Pakistan focused on fighting militancy, hope for a smooth vote, as do investors in a stock market that rose 40 per cent last year but has shed about 3 per cent since Bhutto's death.

Nearly 81 million people are registered to vote. Several hundred foreigners, including a team of US senators, and thousands of Pakistanis have fanned out to monitor the vote but are not allowed to do exit polls.

(Additional reporting by Zeeshan Haider in Islamabad, Kamran Haider and Jon Hemming in Lahore, Sahar Ahmed in Karachi and Simon Gardner in Larkana; Editing by Robert Birsel and Jerry Norton)

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