Pakistan Votes Amid Tension

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Warrick Page / Getty

An elderly man sits next to a voting booth at a polling station in Lahore, Pakistan

Despite a grisly spasm of violence in the days leading up to the elections, Pakistanis lined up at the polls this morning to cast their votes in an election with possibly grave consequences. In theory, the polling could bring an end to the rule of President Pervez Musharraf. In practice, if the vote is seen as fraudulent, it could trigger a repeat of the mayhem that greeted news of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's assassination on December 27th.

Armed clashes between rival political parties were reported across the country as polls opened; scores were injured and at least six killed. In Lahore, five party workers, including one candidate for former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League party, were killed on the eve of elections. On Saturday more than 40 Pakistan People's Party workers were killed when a bomb exploded at a rally in Pakistan's troubled North West Frontier Province. Sakina Bibi, 57, was undisturbed by the threat of violence as she waited patiently in line at a women's polling station in Rawalpindi, not far from the capital. "I am not worried," she said. "It is up to God. If I am meant to die, I will die here."

At the men's polling station just a few blocks away, fears for security were trumped by concerns about vote rigging. The station opened an hour and a half late, causing many voters to give up in disgust before they had a chance to cast their ballots. "The time of voting is from eight am to five," said Jalil Paracha, 55, an electronics shop owner standing outside. "They should give us more time to vote at the end of the day, but they won't. The more time allowed would go against the government." Paracha said that rigging was a foregone conclusion, and warned of violence if Musharraf's party won. "Naturally, if you go against the people's will, the people will react."

Inside the station the scene was shambolic. The names of several registered voters could not be found on election rolls, and representatives from both Bhutto's and Sharif's parties cried foul. After several frantic — and unanswered — calls of complaint to the district returns officer, a new list was discovered. The man checking names had been working off a list for a different station. He appeared to be drunk, and seemed unable to read the identification numbers on registration cards. Meanwhile the two only inkpads available for voters to stamp their ballots were drying up. Voters had to return several times to the registration desk in order to moisten their stamp and mark their ballots. Khawaja Khurshid Alam, a polling agent for Musharraf's party, shook his head with disgust. "These are untrained persons, they don't know how to work in polling stations. People come and they wait and they say, 'why are you wasting our time?' so they go home." While accusations of organized election fraud are widespread, the sheer mayhem in the polling stations beggars belief that any one candidate could swing the votes in his or her favor. It is more likely, say analysts, that rigging will take place at the count, or in stations where voters are unable to visit due to security fears. The government insists, however, that voting so far has been completely fair, with only minor disturbances.

While Musharraf is not running — he was re-elected president by the National Assembly in October — his fate is still very much reflected in the fate of his Pakistan Muslim League Qaid party, a faction that split from Sharif's party after Musharraf, then a general, overthrew the then Prime Minister in a 1999 coup. If the Q party dominates the polling, Musharraf's tenure is secure. But widespread antipathy for his regime may derail his next term in power. If the opposition parties, lead by Sharif and Bhutto's widower Asif Zardari, gain enough votes, they could call for impeachment.

That latter scenario is what Sheikh Usman Rishad, a 25-year-old blanket, pillow and mattress manufacturer, is hoping for. The former Musharraf supporter was up all last night decorating his 2006 Mitsubishi Lancer in honor of Sharif's election symbol, the tiger. He glued fuzzy cream blanket material over the midnight blue exterior, and painstakingly painted it with tiger stripes. The windows and bumpers are trimmed with black feather boas. "I decided to do this for my leader," he said of his masterpiece. "Sharif is going the right way for Pakistan." Musharraf, he says, brought Pakistan suicide bombers and inflation. "Everything now is costing more, so we pray for the success of Mian Nawaz Sharif." Given the delicacy of his decorative creation, there is one more thing he is praying for: "Last night I prayed to god, 'please don't let it rain.'" Yet that outcome would hardly rank against the direr consequences this vote could bring to Pakistan in coming days.