Pakistan votes as 29 die in blasts
Despite attacks that killed 29 people, Pakistanis turned out in huge numbers on Saturday to vote in an election that marked a historic democratic transfer of power in a country plagued by military coups.
The Pakistan Muslim League-N party, led by two-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif, has long been considered the front-runner in the race. The party appeared to be moving toward a significant victory on Saturday based on partial vote counts announced by Pakistan state TV.
The heavy turnout signalled a yearning for change after years of painful inflation and power cuts under the outgoing government. It also offered a sharp rebuke to Taliban militants and others who have tried to derail the election with attacks that have killed more than 150 people in recent weeks.
"Our country is in big trouble," said Mohammad Ali, a shopkeeper who voted in the eastern city of Lahore. "Our people are jobless. Our business is badly affected. We are dying every day."
The vote marked the first time a civilian government has completed its full five-year term and transferred power in democratic elections in a country that has experienced three coups and constant political instability since it was established in 1947.
The election is being watched closely by the US, which relies on the nuclear-armed country of 180 million people for help fighting Islamic militants and negotiating an end to the war in neighbouring Afghanistan.
Passion and energy were seen throughout Pakistan, as millions of people headed to the polls, waving flags and chanting slogans in support of their party. Some were young, first-time voters and others elderly Pakistanis who leaned on canes or friends for support as they dropped their vote in the ballot box.
The Pakistani Taliban, which has been waging a bloody insurgency against the government for years, tried to disrupt the election because the militants believe the country's democracy runs counter to Islam. The government responded by deploying an estimated 600, 000 security personnel across the country to protect polling sites and voters.
Many of the attacks in the run-up to the vote targeted secular parties. That raised concern the violence could benefit hard-line Islamists and other who take a softer line toward the militants because they were able to campaign more freely.
The secretary of the election commission, Ahmed Khan, told reporters in Islamabad that he expected the turnout in Saturday's election to be "massive." Many Pakistanis expressed pride that so many of their fellow citizens chose to vote.