Islamabad, Jul 25: Voting in a tense election to choose a new government in Pakistan ended today with at least 35 people being killed in an Islamic State suicide attack and poll-related violence during the day.
The voting started at 8 AM local time on more than 85,000 polling stations and ended at 6 PM. The results would be announced within 24 hours. The polling ended at its scheduled time despite calls by several major parties, including Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), to extend the polling time by an hour. They had complained of "a slow voting process" and thus sought more time to facilitate voters - a request that was rejected by the Election Commission.
Hours after polling began for the general elections, an Islamic State suicide bomber blew himself up outside a polling station in Bhosa Mandi area of Balochistan's provincial capital, Quetta, killing 31 people, including policemen. In separate incidents, four persons were killed in poll-related violence. Clashes erupted between rival parties outside several polling stations, reports said.
Nearly 10.6 crore people are registered to vote for members of the lower house of parliament and four provincial assemblies. The election marks the second democratic transition of power in the nation's 70-year history.
While polling stations officially opened for voting at 8 AM, enthusiastic citizens queued up outside their respective stations as early as 7 AM. Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa cast his vote in Rawalpindi.
Shahbaz Sharif, the PML-N president who is hoping to become the next prime minister, was among the first to cast his vote in Lahore "Just cast my vote. High time that all of you came out to vote for Pakistan's progress and prosperity. May this election be a source of peace and stability for the nation!," he tweeted.
Former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, former Sindh chief minister Murad Ali Shah, MQM-P's Farooq Sattar, Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP) chairman Mustafa Kamal, PTI chief Imran Khan, PPP co-chairman Bilawal Bhutto and JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman also cast their vote in their respective constituencies.
The two Bhutto sisters – Asifa Bhutto Zardari and Bakhtawar Bhutto Zardari – also cast their votes. Bakhtawar posted a picture after casting a vote with her sister.
According to the Election Commission, 3,459 candidates are contesting for 272 general seats of the National Assembly, while 8,396 candidates are running for 577 general seats of the four provincial assemblies - Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.
More than 30 political parties have fielded their candidates for the elections.
The PTI, led by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, is looking to unseat the incumbent PML-N, which was formally led by the now-jailed ex-prime minister Nawaz Sharif. The PPP, led by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, is also in the race.
According to a survey of polls by Gallup Pakistan on the eve of general elections, PTI and the PML-N are running "neck and neck", with the PTI ahead nationally and the PML-N ahead in the crucial province of Punjab.
For a smooth polling process, the ECP has deployed around 1.6 million staff at polling stations across the country. About 4,49,465 policemen and over 3,70,000 military personnel have been deployed for security. A public holiday has been declared across the country today in order to facilitate the voting process.
Pakistan's National Assembly comprises a total of 342 members, of which 272 will be directly elected today whereas the rest - 60 seats reserved for women and 10 for religious minorities - are selected later through proportional representation among parties with more than five per cent of the vote.
A party can only form the government if it manages to clinch 172 seats in total.
The run-up to the elections has seen a massive crackdown on the media and allegations that the military has secretly backed the campaign of Khan while targeting his political opponents.
The military has ruled Pakistan through various coups for nearly half of the country's history since independence in 1947. Even during the civilian rule, the generals have wielded enormous power, setting the agenda for the country's foreign and security policies.
The ECP was also criticised for deploying the Army both inside and outside of polling stations. Army chief Gen Bajwa, however, assured that the Army will only perform a facilitative role in the polls and that the polling process is to remain under the control and authority of the ECP.
Former prime minister Sharif, the supremo of the PML-N who was jailed this month after being convicted in a corruption case, also accused the military of pressuring the judiciary to convict him. Both institutions deny the charge. Controversy has also arisen over allowing militant groups to participate in the elections.
Some of the infamous Pakistani extremist leaders, accused of spreading religious hatred and instigating sectarian violence, are among hundreds of candidates contesting the elections.
The leading among them are Mumbai-terror attack mastermind Hafiz Saeed-led banned Jamat-ud Dawa's candidates who are fighting with an aim to make Pakistan a "citadel of Islam."
In the run-up to the elections, the country also witnessed a series of deadly attacks targeting candidates and campaign rallies, including one that killed 151 people in Balochistan.