The lead up to Pakistan’s historic election is being described as the most violent in the country’s history, and the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province has been the hardest hit. But the violence has not discouraged voters from showing up at polling stations across the region.
Despite fears of fresh attacks by Taliban extremists long lines of men and women began to form even before polling stations opened across Peshawar. Residents in what is known as Pakistan's most conservative region described the crowds as unprecedented.
This has led to expectations of a high turnout in the province that has been at the forefront of Pakistan’s decade-long anti-terrorism campaign. The region has borne the brunt of retaliatory militant violence and is adjacent to the country’s volatile tribal regions, where the Taliban and other extremist groups are well-entrenched.
But voters say they are less bothered by the threat from militants than the performance of their province’s former ruling Awami National Party.
Shaguftta Khalique was optimistic after casting her ballot at a crowded polling station in Peshawar's Hayatabad residential area. She said she hopes a high turnout will put pressure on future rulers to deliver on their election promises.
“We see that there is going to be a bigger turnout this time. Maybe no party gets the majority but, again, whosoever will come to the [legislative] assembly will try to avoid the mistakes which were done in the previous government.”
The Khan factor
Waiting for his turn outside a polling station in a central part of Peshawar, shopkeeper Nisar Ahmed says he intends to cast his vote for cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan’s political party.
Ahmed says power cuts, gas shortages, corruption and other such issues are the main worries of the population, and the previous rulers could not offer any solution while in power for five years. He says Imran Khan may not be able to solve these problems quickly but voters are fed up with traditional political parties.
Another voter at the station, Nadeem Afridi, also rejected claims of former rulers that they will end the power cuts - known as load-shedding - if they are voted into office again.
He said, “if they could not end the load-shedding when they were in government they are cheating us when they say they will do it now.”
Many here say the charisma and potential of the 60-year-old Khan is the driving force behind the crowds at the polling stations.
Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party has also emerged as a leading force in the province in recent months - possibly mirroring growing support nationwide. The world-famous former athlete appeals mostly to young urban male and female voters because of his calls for revamping the traditional political system. His staunch opposition to U.S. drone strikes in nearby tribal districts and his calls for peaceful talks with the Pakistani Taliban have also won him significant support in this region.
Election authorities had ordered political parties to end their campaigns by midnight Thursday. But Friday night, Khan’s supporters, mostly youngsters riding vehicles and motorbikes decorated with party flags and pictures, rallied on the streets of Peshawar.
Activists and leaders of former ruling Awami National Party or ANP say they were not able to campaign freely in the run-up to the polls because Taliban insurgents targeted their rallies and candidates. Many of those killed in the violence ahead of the polls were members of the party.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for most of these attacks, seen as punishment of the ANP apparently for its secular views and for backing military offensives against militants in districts, including the scenic Swat valley in the province.
ANP leaders dismiss allegations of poor governance and are confident they will emerge as winners in Saturday’s polls.