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Polls Close in Pakistan's Parliamentary Elections


Polls have closed in Pakistan, where voters turned out to elect a new parliament and mark the country's transition from military rule to a democracy. Threats of violence appeared to keep voter turnout low. The vote comes amid concerns of violence and allegations that the results may be rigged. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel reports from Islamabad.

Officials in Pakistan say more than 80 million voters are eligible to participate in the election to select members of the lower house of Parliament and the nation's four provincial assemblies.

The elections are considered critically important to restoring democracy following eight years of military rule under President Pervez Musharraf.

The voting is occurring against a backdrop of concern about security following the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto in a gun and suicide bombing attack last December.

More than 80,000 soldiers and nearly 400,000 police and paramilitary forces are providing security for the polls.

The Pakistan Muslim League-Q, which backs President Musharraf, is facing a major challenge from Ms. Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party and a faction of the Pakistan Muslim League headed by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Several deaths were reported during sporadic clashes across the country.

Late Sunday in Lahore unidentified gunmen shot and killed a candidate from Mr. Sharif's party who was running in the provincial elections.

Several American lawmakers are here to observe the elections, including Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, the co-chair of the Pakistan caucus in the House of Representatives.

"We are here today to encourage the Pakistani people to accept the call of courage and to vote," she said. "But we also recognize that it is necessary to provide safe and transparent methods of voting and an atmosphere for voting."

Mr. Musharraf's presidency is not being contested in this election, but if opposition parties win a two-thirds majority in parliament, they would have enough votes to impeach him.

Opposition parties are accusing supporters of Mr. Musharraf of trying to rig the elections.

Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, the director of the independent Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency, says he agrees with the allegations.

"Whether he will be able to do the Election Day rigging or not remains to be seen," he said. "But the signs are that the government is positioning itself to manipulate the elections."

President Musharraf has repeatedly promised the elections will be free and fair.

With Pakistan facing a growing insurgency by Taliban and al-Qaida-linked militants, the vote is expected to be a referendum on General Musharraf.

Retired Major General Jamshed Ayaz Khan, the president of the independent Institute for Regional Studies, says he believes it will take several months for the political situation in Pakistan to stabilize.

"Unity does not mean there is no opposition. But it will be a peaceful transfer of power. Then gradually, it will take I think a couple of months, two or three months, gradually moving in that direction where we will have a really good system of parliament," said Khan. "I think it has to be done. It will be done."

Analysts say security concerns are likely to have an impact on turnout, which was about 40-percent in the last national elections in 2002.

Early results are expected by late Monday evening, but final official figures may not be available for several days.

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