ISLAMABAD — Defying the danger of militant attacks, Pakistanis streamed to the polls today for a historic vote pitting a former cricket star against a two-time prime minister and an unpopular incumbent. But attacks that killed 16 people and wounded dozens more underlined the risks many people took just casting their ballots.
The violence was a continuation of what has been a brutal election season with more than 130 people killed in bombings and shootings. Some are calling this one of the deadliest votes in the country’s history.
Despite the violence, many see the election — the country’s first transition between an elected government fulfilling its term to another — as a key step to solidify civilian rule for a country that has experienced three military coups.
Twin blasts in the port city of Karachi targeted the political offices of the Awami National Party, one of three secular liberal parties that have been targeted by Taliban militants during the run-up to the election, said police officer Shabir Hussain. Nine people died in the attack and 30 were wounded.
In the northwestern city of Peshawar a bomb exploded outside a polling station, killing at least one person and wounding 10 others, said police officer Mukhtiar Khan.
In the southwestern Baluchistan province where separatists oppose the election, gunmen killed two people outside a polling station in the town of Sorab, police official Mohammed Yousuf said.
Also in Baluchistan, a shootout between supporters of two candidates in the town of Chaman ended with four people dead, said Ismail Ibrahim, a government official.
The threats are such that the government has deployed an estimated 600,000 security personnel across the country to protect polling sites and voters. But many Pakistanis still seemed determined to cast their ballots.
“Yes, there are fears. But what should we do? Either we sit in our house and let the terrorism go on, or we come out of our homes, cast our vote, and bring in a government that can solve this problem of terrorism,” said Ali Khan. He was waiting to vote in the city of Peshawar where one of the blasts took place today.
The election is being watched closely by Washington since the U.S. relies on the nuclear-armed country for help fighting Islamic militants and negotiating an end to the war in neighboring Afghanistan.
Former cricket star Imran Khan, who has almost mythical status in Pakistan, has challenged the dominance of the country’s two main political parties, making the outcome of the election very hard to call. He is facing off against the Pakistan Muslim League-N, headed by two-time former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and the Pakistan People’s Party, led by President Asif Ali Zardari.
While Sharif has billed himself as the candidate of experience, Khan is trying to tap into the frustrations of millions of Pakistanis who want a change from the traditional politicians who have dominated Pakistani politics for years.
“I never voted for anyone in the past, but today my sons asked me to go to polling station, and I am here to vote,” said Mohammed Akbar, speaking from the northwestern city of Khar. “Imran Khan is promising to bring a good change, and we will support him.”
Khan’s mythical status grew even larger this week after he survived a horrific fall off a forklift during a campaign event in the eastern city of Lahore that sent him to the hospital with three broken vertebrae and a broken rib. He is not expected to vote today because he can’t travel to his polling place.
Raza reported from Karachi. Associated Press writers Riaz Khan in Peshawar, Rasool Dawar in Mir Ali and Asif Shahzad in Lahore contributed to this report.