02/19/2008, 00.00
PAKISTAN
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Elections, liberals and Christians win in the Islamic strongholds

by Qaiser Felix
In spite of the violence, discrimination at the polls, and the low voter turnout, the victory seems to have gone to the People's Party and the Muslim League of Sharif, Musharraf's opponent. Christians win in the "Islamic" seats of Punjab and the North West Frontier Province.

Islamabad (AsiaNews) - Violence, discrimination at the polls, and low voter turnout, but also a clear and surprising victory for the democratic parties in the tribal areas of the country - which until now have been strongholds for the Taliban militias - and the expected defeat of Musharraf.  These are the elements that characterised the legislative elections held in Pakistan yesterday.  In spite of the fact that the votes have been counted only partially, a landslide victory is taking shape for the People's Party of slain leader Benazir Bhutto, which is preparing to lead the next national assembly.  Nonetheless, the voting was characterised by a great number of facets.

Problems at the polls

Some explosions took place in electoral districts all over the country, and violence among the supporters of the various parties claimed 24 certified victims and left dozens seriously wounded.  There were various cases of violence on the part of the Taliban militias that tried to block the voting - which they claim "has no validity" - in the northern part of the country,  through threats and intimidation.

Women experienced discrimination practically everywhere.  Peter Jacob, secretary of the episcopal commission for justice and peace, explains to AsiaNews: "This is not a problem of remote areas, in fact, women's votes have been neglected thoroughly". According to Jacob, the government "has not kept its promises, and has made insufficient preparations for this vote: I met with Asma Jahangir, president of the Commission for Human Rights, and she told me that her name was not even on the voting lists".

At some of the polls, however, "civilian guard details" formed spontaneously in response to the aggression of the Taliban, to permit the voting to proceed normally.  In response, Mangal Bagh (head of the extremist group Lashkar-e-Islami) has announced "severe punishments".

The exit polls

With 60% of the ballots counted, the preliminary electoral results of yesterday's voting are taking shape: the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), led by Benazir Bhutto until her assassination, appears to be in the lead for seats in a parliament that, if the trend continues, will have all of the numbers it needs to proceed with the impeachment of Musharraf, who is accused of attempting a coup last November with the declaration of a state of emergency.

According to reports from Geo TV, the PPP has won 74 seats; the Muslim League (N) headed by Nawaz Sharif has 62.  The Muslim League (Q), led by Musharraf's men, has 31 deputies, followed by the Mutahida Quami Movement, which is also part of the coalition headed by the president and has obtained 17 seats. Chaudhry Shujaat, one of the president's key men, has not been re-elected.

The other parties that support Musharraf, in addition to his traditional allies, have obtained only 57 seats in the 241 districts for which results have been announced.  Even if they were to win all of the seats that remain undecided, these same parties would not be able to gain an absolute majority of 272 deputies.

The most astonishing results were obtained in the tribal areas: various districts of the North West Frontier Province ended up in the hands of the People's Party (in spite of the strong presence of the Taliban, who opposed the voting), and in Punjab, the two Muslim leagues did not obtain a majority.

In spite of the tension, the turnout was comparable to that in the elections of 2002, when the citizens were called to elect a puppet president under the military dictatorship of Musharraf: according to initial results, in fact, 40% of the 81 million eligible voters went to the polls.  In some regions, however, the fear of attacks and violence induced many of the voters to stay home.  In Karachi, it is estimated that only 20-25% of the population voted.

The victory of the Christians

Khalil Tahir, a Christian lawyer running for one of the provincial assembly seats in Punjab (his victory is almost certain) tells AsiaNews that as member of provincial assembly he would try his level best for the abolishment of discriminatory laws and for the equal rights of non-Muslims in the country. As a Christian, he adds, "our struggle for equal rights and repeal of discriminatory legislation is not easy but being in the system we can strengthen our endeavors".

Asif Bhatti, a Christian running as a member of the liberal Awami National Party, succeeded in defeating the incumbent of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA, a coalition of six fundamentalist Islamic parties). He tells AsiaNews  that he is very happy that ANP has defeated MMA, especially in Peshawar, capital of the North West Frontier Province.

According to the future deputy, this vote demonstrates that the population "does not want to mix faith with politics. My party has always condemned extremism, and the fact that it has taken so much of the vote in the den of the Taliban proves us right. This victory represents hope for all Christians".

The political reactions

The president of the Muslim League (Q) has admitted defeat. And already during the night, the group's spokesman, Tariq Azim, said: "The voters have given their verdict, and, as democrats, we must accept it".

But Nawaz Sharif has accused the president's coalition of manipulation and violence ahead of the voting, and has emphasised how "the voting overcame all of Musharraf's tricks". Similar positions are expressed by the leaders of the People's Party, who have announced their intention to ask for the opinions of the international observers before making an official statement.

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