Pakistan: No bombs, but plenty of tension as polls close for counting

Election observers have reported few instances of fraud, a key concern as officials begin tallying results.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Workers counted ballots in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, on Monday for long-awaited elections. Many saw the vote as a referendum on the unpopular President Pervez Musharraf.
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On a day that began with fears of suicide bombings and massive vote-rigging, something else emerged from the nation's polling stations – an unvarnished look at democracy, Pakistan-style.

Voters turned out for long-anticipated parliamentary elections, which were originally scheduled in January but postponed after the Dec. 27 assassination of popular opposition leader Benazir Bhutto.

Her Pakistan People's Party and another opposition group, Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N), are expected to do well against the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Q, which supports the increasingly unpopular President Pervez Musharraf. Many see the election as a referendum on Mr. Musharraf's leadership.

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West of Lahore, in the narrow strip of urban streets and fertile farmland wedged between the city and the Indian border, Pakistan emerged in miniature.

There was Mohammed Sardar, who wished to be able to afford bread again. There was Mohammed Younus, who voted for the candidate that his elders told him to, hoping she will fight terrorism, because people are too scared to leave their home and come to his mobile-phone shop, Mr. Younus says.

It is too early to call the vote a success, since post-election tampering is possible and the votes are just now being counted. But by and large, election observers here say, things went as smoothly as could have been expected.

The election result should start becoming clear by midnight Monday, Eastern Standard Time. What seems apparent now, however, is that the fear of suicide bombers did affect turnout – attacks on campaign rallies in the past week have killed dozens of people, including 47 in a Saturday attack in northwestern Pakistan. At one polling station in this constituency, the first vote was not cast until 9:30 a.m. – even though the polls opened at 8 a.m.

What did not materialize, however, were the suicide bombers. Shortly after the polls closed, there were no reports of any such attacks throughout the day. Likewise, there were few reports of rigging.

Election observer Anees Khan holds out his notebook with pride, showing the hashmarks that represent every voter who cast a vote and the untidy scrawl of numbers that denote every ballot box. "There is not a single example of rigging," he says with evident pride, cutting an odd figure in a long beard and baseball cap.

Observers at other stations are not so categorical. A group of young men supporting the PML-N entered one polling station and began pressuring voters to choose their party, says Mubeen Kausar of the Free and Fair Election Network, a Pakistani nonprofit that has dispatched 20,000 volunteers to monitor polls. When election officials questioned the validity of some of their documents, the men bullied them into accepting their votes, she adds.

Ms. Kausar will report these incidents, but says they are typical of Pakistani elections.

So, too, was the scene in the farming village of Bhaseen, several miles away. Late in the day, scores of villagers stood ankle deep in cabbage, watching several units of police and one team of Army Rangers flood the polling station. More than 470,000 police and soldiers were deployed across the country to oversee security during the election.

Eyewitnesses say there was a brawl – and even several shots fired – when supporters from one party roughed up a woman, from another party, whom they accused of election fraud.

Experts say the greatest threat of substantial rigging is now, when the polls have closed and elections officers installed by the Musharraf government may be tempted to tweak some results in favor of their candidates. But the voters who came did so in the hope that their vote would be fairly counted.

"There is a great need for change," says Younus, a middle-aged shopowner. As bombings – and fear – have spread from the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, his income has plummeted. He says he used to make as much as $64 a day selling cellphones in a Lahore market. Since Bhutto's assassination on Dec. 27, that has slipped to barely $3 a day.

"I am expecting improvement in law and order and in business," he says.

Like other voters, Mr. Sardar says he merely wants to eat. Under the Musharraf government, food prices have risen by more than 10 percent each year for the past three years, and inflation ranked at the top of voters' minds.

"I want the government to think of the poor," says Sardar, and elderly man with a weathered face and hollowed cheeks. "The answer to every question is bread."

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