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Home / World / Pakistan election begins, under allegations of intimidation and rigging: NPR

Pakistan election begins, under allegations of intimidation and rigging: NPR

Pakistani soldiers patrol a street next to a billboard with a picture of Imran Khan of the Pakistani Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice) in Rawalpindi.

Aamir Qureshi / AFP / Getty Images

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Aamir Qureshi / AFP / Getty Images

Patriots patrol a street next to a billboard with a picture of Imran Khan of the Pakistani Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice) in Rawalpindi

Aamir Qureshi / AFP / Getty Images

The election on Wednesday in Pakistan marks the second time in the country's 71-year history that power is passed from one civilian government to the next. But the weeks before the vote are marked by extreme violence. Activists, journalists and candidates say the campaign is corrupt, which calls into question a fragile democratic process.

"There have been big complaints about what happened this time," says Omar Waraich, Deputy South Asian Director of Amnesty International. "We had very serious allegations of arbitrary arrest, media restrictions, attacks on people's rights to freedom of assembly, freedom of association and freedom of expression."

Some candidates have shifted their ties to rival parties or have appeared as independents to suggest pressure or intimidation. Journalists claim that their reporting is suppressed. And there are allegations of interference by the military, which has used its power in the past to organize coups and expel leaders.

"The fact that you have the tireless efforts to fight against dissenters and the media – you see Pakistan is besieging democratic institutions, and that's a sign of democratization," said Michael Kugelman, Senior Associate for South Asia at Wilson Center in Washington DC

Election day came after a flood of terrorist attacks, civilians and politicians killed a suicide bombing in provincial town of Mastung, which killed more than 150 people in a campaign event. To prepare for the tens of millions of people likely to vote, the police blocked streets and cleared buildings for counting ballots. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers were stationed in polling stations, and police in northwestern Pakistan used surveillance vehicles to stream live video.

More than 80,000 voting booths planned to open across the country, with nearly 106 million people registered for vote. Preliminary results are expected to be available a few hours after the completion of the Wednesday evening polls.

More than 100 parties have signed up for national and regional parliamentary seats, but at the national level, it is a fiercely contested race between two: the former ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, led by the brother of former former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Pakistan Tehreek -i-Insaf, with Imran Khan, a former cricket star, at the top.

Pictures of fallen former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz in front of an election office in Rawalpindi, Pakistan.

Farooq Naeem / AFP / Getty Images

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Farooq Naeem / AFP / Getty Images

Pictures of ousted former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz in front of a campaign office in Rawalpindi, Pakistan

Farooq Naeem / AFP / Getty Images

"All polls show head-to-head," says Kugelman.

Khan, 65, made a name for himself as an international cricketer in 1996 before founding his party. His party never had national power and vows to fight corruption. He has criticized his country's efforts to combat terrorism and called for peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban.

"It's clear that Imran Khan is receiving more support than he has ever received before, and that's not because of any rigging for him," says Waraich. "The question is, does that mean that he is building enough support to form a majority in parliament?"

Sharif, 68, a threefold prime minister, was disqualified last year after the Panama Papers leaked by the Supreme Court revealed that he owned secret property in London. He was sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment this month. His brother Shehbaz, 66, is now leading the party, which is traditionally highly competitive in Punjab, the most populous province, and now accuses the military of favoring Khan. This month, police opened about 17,000 criminal cases against PML-N candidates and arrested hundreds of party supporters.

The Pakistan People's Party, led by Asif Zardari, former president and husband of murdered former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, is also campaigning for candidates. He leads the party together with his son Bilawal. The party is expected to form a large bloc in the Pakistani parliament – and possibly act as a deal maker when a coalition is formed.

It's not that the military necessarily supports Khan, says Kugelman. "The army basically wants a weak coalition government, and that's because the army in Pakistan is a very powerful force that influences politics," he says. "It is so much easier to exploit and influence a weak and divided government, as opposed to a strong government led by a party."

The army, he says, does not want to see the ruling party return. "I think there is reason to fear that the army is trying to undermine the electoral prospects of the ruling [PML-N] party, with which the army has argued quite often over the last two years," he says.

The military sees Khan as the worst result, he says.

Dozens of other political groups campaigning for representation in parliament include extremist parties – including a militant front, whose leader Hafiz Saeed is on a United Nations terrorist blacklist. Saeed is accused of carrying out attacks in India, killing more than 160 people.

"If you have all these tough religious parties in the election campaign, you risk legitimizing their ideologies, which are in many cases poisonous and violent," Kugelman warns [1659008]. While some militants chose to be free, some secular candidates faced each other faced with travel restrictions and house arrest, the BBC reported.

The "most likely outcome of the election," he believes, "is the lack of a clear winner" There will continue to be political instability.

Yet, interviews among voters in rural and urban areas of Pakistan have shown that bread-and-butter issues – jobs, food costs, economic growth – remain most important.

** [19659008] In a working-class district of Lahore, many residents said they would vote for Sharif's party. Roshan Abbas, a rickshaw driver, said the party had improved the roads, installed street lighting and sanitary facilities in his area.

In the same area, those who said they were voting for Khan's party said they wanted a change – saying, "We are poor," said Mohammed Ishtiyaq, a wedding singer, "they are in my area nothing was done. "

"The roads are broken," he said. "The sewage system is in ruins."

For other voices – mainly in urban, middle class areas there was a sense of exhaustion with the old ruling party. Residents said they wanted a change, such as Col. Amjad Feroze, 45, who said he would vote for Khan in the hope that he would fix Pakistan's chronically-weak economy and security challenges.

"Basically, we tested and tried the previous one, you did not live up to our expectations, let's give a new person a chance," he said.

Abdul Sattar contributed to this story from Islamabad.

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