Pakistan set for poll as Taliban threatens

Pakistan set for poll as Taliban threatens

Pakistan set for poll as Taliban threatens

Pakistan will be holding its parliamentary elections on May 11. The race has been dominated by Nawaz Sharif, head of the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N). AA photo

Millions of Pakistanis will go to the polls May 11 in elections that, while overshadowed by Taliban threats, will mark a historic democratic transition of power in a nuclear-armed state used to military rule.

The militant group has announced plans to carry out suicide bombings during the election in a bid to undermine the poll, according to a letter from the leader of the group. Hakimullah Mehsud, in a message to the group’s spokesman, outlined plans for attacks, including suicide blasts, in all four of the country’s provinces.

“We don’t accept the system of infidels which is called democracy,” Mehsud said in the letter, dated May 1, and obtained by Reuters yesterday. Taliban attacks have so far killed more than 100 people. The military said yesterday it would send tens of thousands of troops to polling stations and counting centers to prevent the Taliban from disrupting the election.

Sharif the frontrunner

Pakistan’s more than 86 million voters have the choice of 4,670 candidates standing for the 342-member lower house of Parliament and nearly 11,000 people running for four regional assemblies.

Pakistan set for poll as Taliban threatensThe race has been dominated by opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, head of the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N), and former cricket star Imran Khan, who is looking to make a breakthrough for his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party. Sharif, a steel tycoon, is considered the frontrunner and tipped to become the first politician to serve three terms as prime minister. He was first in the post from 1990 to 1993, until he was sacked for corruption, and from 1997 until 1999, when he was deposed by a military coup. Khan, who won only one seat in 2002 and boycotted polls in 2008, has led an electric campaign, galvanizing the middle class and young people in what he has called a “tsunami” of support that will propel him into office. The main outgoing Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has run a lackluster, rudderless campaign without a leader. Its election advertising still stars Benazir Bhutto, its charismatic prime minister assassinated in 2007.

Her son, Bilawal, is too young to run for Parliament and Taliban threats have prevented him from addressing public rallies. His father, President Asif Ali Zardari, is barred from campaigning as head of state and is anyway deeply divisive and unpopular.

Meanwhile, gunmen kidnapped the son of a former Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani on the last day of campaigning for elections and shot dead one of the son’s aides, police said. Ali Haider Gilani, a candidate for the Punjab provincial assembly, was seized in a hail of gunfire on the outskirts of the city of Multan in the province.

Former President Pervez Musharraf has been also barred from contesting in elections for life since returning in late March from self-imposed exile. He is currently under house arrest.

The polls are considered critical to strengthening democracy in Pakistan, marking the first time that an elected civilian government completes a full term and hands over to another in a country that has been ruled by the army for half its existence.