ISLAMABAD – Pakistanis streamed to the polls Saturday to vote in a historic election pitting a cricket star-turned-politician against an unpopular incumbent and a two-time prime minister, but twin bombings killing nine people and wounding dozens underlined the dangers voters face.
The blasts in the port city of Karachi targeted the political offices of the Awami National Party, one of three secular liberal parties that have been targeted by Taliban militants during the run-up to the election, said police officer Shabir Hussain.
More than 130 people were killed in bombings and shootings ahead of Saturday’s historic vote in what many observers have called Pakistan’s most deadly election.
The vote is being watched closely by Washington since the U.S. relies on the nuclear-armed country for help fighting Islamic militants and negotiating an end to the war in neighboring Afghanistan.
Former cricket star Imran Khan, who has almost mythical status in Pakistan, has challenged the dominance of the country’s two main political parties, making the outcome of the election very hard to call. He is facing off against the Pakistan Muslim League-N, headed by two-time former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and the Pakistan People’s Party, led by President Asif Ali Zardari.
But after five years of inflation, electricity blackouts and militant attacks, the PPP is expected to fare poorly in the vote.
While Sharif has billed himself as the candidate of experience, Khan is trying to tap into the frustrations of millions of Pakistanis who want a change from the traditional politicians who have dominated Pakistani politics for years.
As Pakistanis headed to the polls, there was a sense of excitement among an electorate aware of the historical significance of their vote and the risk they were taking.
“Bombs or terrorist attacks must not stop voters from using their right to vote,” said 70-year-old Islamabad voter Humayon Qaiser. “People will have to decide what kind of Pakistan they want. If they vote for the wrong party, they will suffer for another five years.”