Pakistan vote a step forward, but irregularities exist: EU

ISLAMABAD (AFP) - High turnout in Pakistan's landmark election was a positive step for democracy despite the fact that the campaign was marred by violence and irregularities, a European Union observer mission said on Monday.

Violence in the run-up to polls and on election day itself killed over 150 people, according to an AFP tally, as the Taleban set their sights in particular on secular parties that made up the outgoing government.

Saturday's vote was the first time a civilian government has handed over power to another in a country that has been ruled by the military for half its life.

Violence during the campaign and on election day had been "terrible, but must not overshadow the achievements of the process", MEP Richard Howitt told a news conference in Islamabad.

"The turnout in defiance of the threats against the process was an extraordinary vote of confidence in democracy itself.

"This election was a step forward, but one from which we call on all those elected to sustain their commitment to reforms, in the interests of good government for the people and governance for the state," he said.

Mr Michael Gahler, chief of the mission, congratulated Pakistan's election commission for making improvements to its election law and improving its voter roll, as well as ordering re-polling in a contested seat in Karachi.

But the mission said "women and vulnerable groups" were persistently under-represented" despite nearly three times the number of women candidates and a higher women's turnout than at the last polls in 2008.

Observers said voting procedures were mostly followed and that in a "vast majority" of stations all essential material was present, but classified nine per cent of stations visited as "poor or inadequate".

But the mission did not go at all to the south-western, insurgency-torn province of Baluchistan or the semi-autonomous tribal belt on the Afghan border where the Taleban and Al-Qaeda have strongholds. It also only "undertook limited observation" in Karachi, where the mission said observers saw "some serious problems in polling and were also restricted in their activities".

Karachi was the focus of most complaints reported by rival political parties.