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Pakistan Prepares for Historic Vote Amid Threats of Violence From the Taliban

May 10, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
In Pakistan, citizens are enthusiastically preparing to vote in a historic election. But in the lead up to the parliamentary vote, attacks by the Taliban have killed more than 100 people with the promise of suicide bombs on election day. Ray Suarez takes a look at the various candidates and the attitudes of the voters.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next to Pakistan. The country’s citizens head to the polls this Saturday for an historic vote, despite threats of attacks from the Taliban.

Ray Suarez reports.

RAY SUAREZ: There’s been no shortage of enthusiasm as Pakistanis approach tomorrow’s critical parliamentary elections. But the political rallies have unfolded in the shadow of almost daily violence.

Since April, attacks by the Pakistani Taliban have left more than 100 people dead and the group warns of suicide bombings on Election Day.

ANDREW WILDER, United States Institute Of Peace: So they’re much more specifically targeting election-related targets — candidates, political party workers, political party offices, election commission offices.

RAY SUAREZ: Andrew Wilder is director of Afghanistan and Pakistan programs at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington. He recently traveled to Pakistan, where attacks have most often targeted liberal and secular parties, forcing some top candidates to curtail campaigning.

Yesterday, gunmen even kidnapped the son of former Prime Pinister Yousaf Raza Gilani. Wilder says there’s a long list of motives.

ANDREW WILDER: Some of the separatist groups are very opposed to the elections period. Some of the more extreme militant groups are also, I think, just trying to prevent the elections from happening, including targeting some of the other Islamic parties in the campaign.

However, some of the other candidates seem to — some of the militant groups have been pretty explicit that they have particular parties that they want to disadvantage in the election. So presumably, there are parties that they would like to advantage in the election, as well.

RAY SUAREZ: All of this comes at an urgent moment in Pakistan’s 65-year history. The country is beset — corruption, widespread poverty, Sunni-Shiite divisions and a constant struggle against the Taliban and its allies.

Pakistan has played a critical role in the war on terror. And as Wilder notes, Washington will be watching closely to see what happens this weekend.

ANDREW WILDER: I think the general sense is that there’s not going to be dramatic changes. It’s not like we’ve had a great U.S.-Pakistan relationship in the past couple of years. And so it doesn’t have that much further south that I think that it can go.

There is a hope that with the new government, really, to some extent, whoever is elected, there will be an opportunity to try to tackle some of the main problems facing Pakistan.

RAY SUAREZ: According to the polls, Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League, Nuwaz, the PMLN, are making a strong bid. Sharif has served as prime minister twice before, during the 1990s.

NAWAZ SHARIF, LEADER, PAKISTAN MUSLIM LEAGUE-NUWAZ: Pakistan needs a strong government to pull it out from the quagmire of problems. It needs a strong writ of a powerful government which can end turbulence, which can end terrorism and which can make a peaceful country and also which can allow the country to develop and progress.

RAY SUAREZ: Sharif has campaigned hard on the theme of economic development. His backers in Lahore, inside the populous Punjab Province, point to the city’s newest metro bus system as an example of what they could bring to the entire country. Opened earlier this year, the rapid transit project runs through various residential and commercial parts of Lahore. It was pushed by Sharif’s brother, the former chief minister of Punjab Province, and it’s helped garner new support from voters.

MAN: I myself have been a very strong supporter of Pakistan People’s Party all my life. But now, in this election campaign, I think I’m going to cast my vote in favor of Pakistan Muslim League. And it’s all because of the works, the developmental works which they have done, like this metro bus service. They speak for themselves, whereas Pakistan People’s Party has not been able to deliver anything in the last five years.

RAY SUAREZ: Still with no political party expected to win a majority, a coalition government is the likely result. The man that may become kingmaker in the forming of a new government is Imran Khan, an international star cricket player turned politician. The 60-year-old heads the Tehreek-e-Insaf, or Movement for Justice, Party, which he founded in 1996.

IMRAN KHAN, Leader, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf: While casting your vote, you should not follow the advice of your relatives or the community. You should not follow the advice of your friends. You have to take into account one thing only, the ideology. We are bringing ideology back in politics, the ideology of a new Pakistan.

RAY SUAREZ: Part of that ideology is khan’s criticism of U.S. drone attacks inside Pakistan. Supporters also hope to capitalize on frustration with the Pakistan People’s Party, which has governed for the past five years.

MUHAMMAD ALI: They’ve completely ruined our country. They completely ruined our lives. There is no electricity. There are no jobs.

MAN: But while Khan’s backers keep up their efforts, the candidate has been unable to campaign since Tuesday, when he fell 15 feet off a forklift as it raised him to the stage at a rally in Lahore.

He fractured three vertebrae and a rib and remains hospitalized, but he addressed a rally on Thursday from his hospital bed.

Who wins and who loses tomorrow will be determined in large part by a growing segment of the Pakistani population — the young.

SIMBAL KHAN, WOODROW WILSON CENTER: It’s sunk in that how they’ve been left behind and how these various crises, unless they are addressed, completely, you know, darken the prospects for the future.

RAY SUAREZ: Simbal Khan is the Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. She points to the enormous power of younger voters with more than 100 million Pakistanis under the age of 30.

SIMBAL KHAN: There is this huge push and urge in the young to kind of get the change message across. This election is that change message, and I think that change would, with Imran Khan or PML-N, you know, basically it is catalyzing this kind of a desire for change. And it is being felt.

RAY SUAREZ: This election will mark the first time in Pakistan’s history that one civilian government hands over power to another. There’s a history of military coups, but last month the army chief pledged to support the outcome of the vote, no matter who wins.

GEN. ASHFAQ PARVEZ KAYANI, CHIEF OF ARMY STAFF: I assure you that we stand committed to wholeheartedly assist in the conduct of free, fair and peaceful elections.

RAY SUAREZ: Meanwhile, the wide array of candidates and parties has campaigned to the wire, putting up posters, handing out flags by the dozens. But with hundreds of candidates competing, Pakistanis may have other reasons to be nervous, as Andrew Wilder points out.

ANDREW WILDER: Where there is concern that if they do have a hung parliament and lots of wheeling and dealing and compromises have to be made and half the assembly has to be given a cabinet portfolio to get them on board, it’s not necessarily going to lead to a picture of good governance and effective government.

RAY SUAREZ: Polls open tomorrow morning, amid high security and hopes that neither violence nor corruption will mar the results.