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Thin exit poll lead for Benazir party

Islamabad, Oct. 10: Pakistanis voted today in the first general election since General Pervez Musharraf seized power in a 1999 coup, with at least six people killed and more than 40 wounded in scattered clashes between supporters of rival parties.

Counting started shortly after polls closed at 5 pm in an election that is supposed to restore civilian rule in Pakistan, three years after the coup.

Voting was steady though lacking enthusiasm, at least in Pakistan’s main cities. “This is the first time I am casting my vote for the restoration of democracy, although I know it is not going to be restored,” 29-year-old student Khalid Hameed said in Rawalpindi. “In the presence of the army, how can democracy be restored'”

Turnout and enthusiasm seemed a little higher in rural areas in a poll contested by 83 parties — including one widely seen as supporting Musharraf — but from which the exiled leaders of the political mainstream have been excluded.

Interior Minister Moinuddin Haider said the poll had “by and large” gone very well. “Polling today was very free, very fair and very transparent,” he told BBC.

Critics, however, say Musharraf has manipulated the vote in his favour and will retain considerable powers as President.

The first results were expected late tonight or early on Friday, but an exit poll showed the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto taking an early lead, with 30 per cent of the vote in Punjab, the most populous province. In the next biggest province, Sindh, PPP was also well ahead with 38 per cent. But the PPP’s healthy lead narrowed sharply as further results came in.

An alliance of religious parties, who have based their campaign partly on opposition to Musharraf's role in the US-led war on terror, did well in the less-densely-populated North West Frontier Province and Baluchistan.

Though the Pattan Development Organisation, which surveyed 5,850 voters in 50 constituencies around the country, cautioned against reading too much into the results, a PPP victory would set the scene for an uneasy cohabitation between a military President and a party that has always been one of his fiercest critics.

Observers believe the elections would result in a hung parliament. The new Prime Minister would not be a strong one as the President and the newly-formed National Security Council would have more powers.

However, soon after casting his vote, Musharraf told newsmen in Rawalpindi that the government has worked out everything for the transfer of power and will go through the normal legal process after the elections. The President said he would hand over power to the new Prime Minister by the first week of November. “We will go by this process...and finally roughly by November 1, I will hand over chief executive authority to a new Prime Minister.”

The President said he would accept the verdict of the people, as they are the final authority. “Whichever party gets majority in the assembly would form the government.” Musharraf was confident that the system on the ground now would ensure that everything goes on smoothly after the formation of the new government.

A report from Washington said the White House today welcomed Pakistan’s elections as an “important milestone” in the transition to democracy. “This is an important milestone in Pakistan’s ongoing transition to democracy, and we will continue to watch this process closely,” said Ari Fleischer, chief spokesman for US President George W. Bush.

Fleischer said diplomats from the US embassy in Islamabad and its consulates were travelling throughout Pakistan to watch for any irregularities. “We are committed to remaining engaged with Pakistan throughout this transition and, as you are aware, when the President (Bush) met with President Musharraf in New York, he stressed to President Musharraf the importance of transitioning to democracy,” added Fleischer.

After Musharraf came to power, the supreme court legitimised his takeover and gave him three years to complete his reform agenda and asked him to hold elections at the end of the period.

Today’s elections were conducted in the light of that order.

However, Musharraf handed himself the right to dissolve parliament, institutionalised the military’s role in politics through a National Security Council and has effectively barred Bhutto and Sharif from returning or ever becoming Prime Minister again.

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