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Shooting Mars Pakistan Polls

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Shooting mars Pakistan polls

Staff and wires

Thursday, October 10, 2002 Posted: 9:11 AM EDT (1311 GMT)

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- A gun attack on a polling station near Karachi, which left 9 people wounded and two dead, has marred Pakistan's first general elections since a 1999 military coup.

Police officials said the violence took place in Moro, about 250 kilometers (160 miles) from the southern port city Karachi, following clashes between rival political parties.

More than 64,000 polling booths servicing an eligible voting population of about 72 million have closed across the South Asian nation with election officials now facing the arduous task of collating the votes.

Voting began slowly in the capital Islamabad in a poll contested by 83 parties but from which the exiled leaders of the political mainstream have been excluded.

There was a little more activity in the sprawling southern city of Karachi, with early voters split between several of the different parties contesting the election.

The elections will determine a new prime minister and government, but one that will remain subordinate to the military leadership of President Pervez Musharraf.

Musharraf, who will retain the power to overrule the democratically-elected parliament, has assured voters that the elections will be clean and untainted by corruption.

In a televised address on the eve of the vote, General Musharraf said he is prepared to hand over power to the elected prime minister and that election monitors will ensure the fairness of the vote.

The general said Pakistan stood on the threshold of a "new democratic era" and urged the country of 140 million to "vote diligently."

Opinion polls showed a pro-Musharraf faction of the Pakistan Muslim League, the PML(QA), was running neck and neck with the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) of exiled former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto

Three hundred independent observers were in the country to monitor the polls, Musharraf said.

"This election will be open, clean, crystal clear, fair and free, transparent without any doubt," he said.

"I am very satisfied that whatever I promised I fulfilled and always have given you whatever I had in my mind," he said. "I gave you honesty and if I made any mistake I had no hesitation to accept that."

But his promise of a free and fair election and a smooth transition of power was immediately attacked by the popular former prime minister Bhutto, who has been barred by arch-rival Musharraf from contesting the election.

"He is highly unpopular," Bhutto said of the president Thursday "because people in our country blame the military for destabilizing civilian government."

Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party is one of the country's major political groupings.

Military power

Human rights and political groups accuse the president of trying to limit the competition, and of trying to control the vote process to maintain his grip on power.

His decision to block Bhutto's return to the country, and a series of constitutional amendments enhancing his powers ahead of the poll, have convinced many Pakistanis that Musharraf intends to continue to run the country under the guise of civilian rule.

"I also want to say that one power I shall always keep, about which there will be no compromise ... is the solidarity and survival of Pakistan and the running of government free from corruption and dishonesty."

Although they still wield considerable influence over their parties from outside of Pakistan, the absence of both Bhutto and Sharif from campaign rallies has taken much of the drama and charisma out of this election.

From Musharraf's point of view, this is no bad thing. What Pakistan needs, he says, is new leadership -- any new leader, he says, will be better than what Pakistan had in the past.

But he is under fire from political opponents and independent observers for subverting the restoration of democracy.

The U.S.-based Human Rights Watch issued a stinging attack on his pre-election record Wednesday, saying: "In the three years since the coup, Pakistan has witnessed a consolidation of military power rather than a transition to democracy. Pakistan's international partners cannot ignore this fact any longer."

The United States has been slow to mention the controversial build-up to the election, recognizing Musharraf as a key ally in the military campaign against the Taliban and al Qaeda network in neighboring Afghanistan.

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