Islamabad, Feb 18: Polling for general elections in Pakistan began today amid unprecedented security and heightened fears of violence.
Polling started at 0800 hrs (local time) and will continue till 1700 hrs. More than 80 million voters are expected to exercise their franchise at 64,176 polling stations-- one third of them already declared sensitive. The outcome of the election will indicate what the future holds for President Pervez Musharraf as an overwhelming victory for the forces ranged against him may well bolster moves to further weaken his position by constitutional means.
More than 7200 candidates are in the fray for 269 seats of the National Assembly, out of 272, and 570 seats of the provincial assemblies.
More than 80,000 personnel of civil and armed forces and Army have been deployed across the country to help civil administration and the police in maintaining law and order. According to Director General of Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) Maj Gen Athar Abbas battalions of Army have been deployed in sensitive and very sensitive areas in the four provinces to assist maintenance of law and order.
Due to varied reasons, elections for three National Assembly seats and seven provincial seats have been postponed. They are NA-207, NA-119 and NA-42. Elections on three provincial assembly seats in the NWFP and four in the Punjab have been also put off.
Another 70 seats in the 342-seat National Assembly are reserved for non-Muslims (10) and women (60), which are allocated to parties according to how many votes they win.
Of the total 272 National Assembly seats, 148 are in Punjab province, 61 in Sindh, 35 in North West Frontier, 14 in Balochistan, 12 in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and two in the capital, Islamabad.
All the major political parties, including Pakistan People's Party of slain leader Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan Muslim League (N) of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan Muslim League (Q), secular ethnic pushtun, Awami National Party and Mutahida Qaumi Movement representing Urdu speaking population have fielded their candidates.
Five out of six parties of the Islamist alliance, Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal are boycotting the polls while the only pro-Taliban Jamiat-ul Ulema-e-Islam of Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman is contesting.
Polling has also been cancelled at Parachinar national assembly seat after a blast at an election rally on Saturday killed 47 people. For the first time 4,30,000 transparent ballot boxes imported from China will be used at all polling stations. Special voting screens have been arranged by the Election Commission, which has also put on its website computerised electoral rolls as well as list of all polling stations.
The Returning Officers will announce results at their respective polling stations on the basis of vote counts received from polling stations.
More than 500 international observers have reached Pakistan to monitor the polls. Results are expected to start emerging towards midnight and trends should be clear by tomorrow morning.
The elections originally scheduled for January 8 were deferred till February 18 in the wake of Ms Bhutto's assassination.
A wave of suicide bombings across the country, killing 470 people this year alone, had taken the wind out of the poll campaign with only major political parties like the PPP and Nawaz Sharif's PML-N organising big rallies, that too rarely.
Though President Musharraf has time and again asserted that the polls would be conducted in a fair manner, the people of Pakistan as well as the international community remains sceptical that the establishment would do every thing to ensure that the results come out in its favour.
An audio tape was released by Human Rights Watch on Friday, in which Attorney General Malik Mohammad Qayyum was claimed to have been telling someone over the phone that the polls would be ''massively rigged''.
Apart from deteriorating law and order situation, rising inflation and power crisis, the biggest issue in these elections is the 64-year-old former General himself, who faces impeachment if his detractors emerged victorious.