Pakistan votes in landmark polls as bomb kills 11 in Karachi

ISLAMABAD (AFP) - Pakistanis queued up to vote in landmark elections on Saturday, defying Taleban attacks to cast their ballots in polls marking a historic democratic transition for the nuclear-armed state.

Turnout appeared enthusiastic in the capital, in Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar, but was thinner in the southwestern province of Baluchistan, gripped by separatist and sectarian violence, AFP reporters said.

More than 86 million people are eligible to vote for the 342-member national assembly and four provincial assemblies in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab, Sindh and Baluchistan.

Polls close at 5:00 pm (8pm Singapore time).

In Karachi, Pakistan's financial hub, a Taleban bomb killed 11 people and wounded 36 others, targeting a candidate for the provincial assembly for the Awami National Party, one of the secular parties in the outgoing government.

An AFP photographer said a child aged three to four was among the dead laid out in the morgue and police said one of the candidate's guards was also killed.

The target, Mr Amanullah Mehsud, escaped unhurt, senior police official Mazhar Nawaz said. The Taleban, who consider democracy un-Islamic and have vowed to disrupt the vote with suicide attacks, quickly claimed responsibility.

"We proudly claim responsibility for this attack, we carried it out and will carry out more of the same," spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan told AFP by telephone from an undisclosed location.

Another bomb wounded eight people outside a women's polling station in Peshawar and temporarily suspended voting, police said.

Pre-election violence killed at least 127 people, according to an AFP tally, and the campaign has been called the bloodiest in the country's history.

Queues gathered outside polling stations in Pakistan's main cities where some people said they were nervous about security, but others spoke enthusiastically about exercising their democratic right and voting for change.

"We have already spent a lot of time being scared of terror threats. Today, we have to take a decision and bury this state of fear once and for all," said Mr Suhail Ahmad, a shopkeeper in Peshawar.

The vote marks the first time that an elected civilian administration has completed a full term and handed power to another through the ballot box in a country where there have been three military coups and four military rulers.

The front-runner is ex-prime minister Nawaz Sharif, head of the centre-right Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) but much of the campaign has been electrified by cricket star Imran Khan with promises of reform and an end to corruption.

The charismatic 60-year-old leader of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) tapped into a last-minute surge of support after fracturing his spine when he fell from a stage at a campaign rally on Tuesday.

Although he is expected to make a full recovery, he is flat on his back in hospital and aides say he will not be able to vote.

The outgoing centre-left Pakistan People's Party (PPP) has run a lacklustre and rudderless campaign, with its chairman, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, too young to run and largely hidden from public view due to Taleban threats.

In Karachi, there were queues outside polling stations in some areas, but voting was more sluggish in other parts of the city where people spoke of security fears.

"This time I am more enthusiastic about voting than in the last elections.

"The media played a good role in motivating people... that they should not let their vote go waste," said Ms Mehar Rehman, 29, who works for a private company.

An AFP reporter said voting was delayed at 12 polling stations he visited, as officials awaited the delivery of ballot boxes and papers.

Election commission official Najeeb Ahmed said that any delays at polling booths would be compensated by extending voting hours.

Commentators are divided on whether a wealth of enthusiastic first-time voters and Taliban threats will make turnout higher or lower than the 44 per cent at the last elections in 2008.

The main issues are the tanking economy, an appalling energy crisis that causes power cuts of up to 20 hours a day, the alliance in the US-led war on Islamist militants, chronic corruption and the dire need for development.

More than 600,000 security personnel have deployed nationwide and around half the estimated 70,000 polling stations have been declared at risk of attack, many of them in insurgency-torn parts of Baluchistan and the northwest.

The PML-N and PPP have dominated politics for decades, led by two of the richest families in the country, the Sharifs and the Bhuttos.

But Mr Khan has sought to galvanise a young, urban middle class with promises of sweeping change.

With no reliable polling data, Mr Sharif has been earmarked the most probable winner but if PTI do well enough to become a formidable opposition, there are concerns that the emergent coalition will be weak and possibly short-lived.

Mr Sharif served as prime minister from 1990-93, when he was sacked for corruption, and from 1997-99, when he was deposed by the military, although his family say he is a changed man who will this time govern more successfully.

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