Rigging allegations mar Karachi polls

Voting is cancelled in at least 40 polling stations as parties trade charges of fraud and voter intimidation.

A soldier frisks voters before they enter a polling station in Karachi. Fareed Khan / AP Photo
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KARACHI // The men, their faces twisted in anger, some armed with guns, jumped off motorcycles and out of cars and stormed towards the gates of the Bedwani library grounds where hundreds of people waited to cast their votes.

The men pushed through voters who had queued for hours in the fierce midday sun and into the station where they claimed workers for the city's most powerful political party, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), were intimidating voters and stuffing ballots.

Some in the group, from a new Shiite political party, began to brawl with the MQM men. People scurried away, an elderly woman was knocked to the ground. The paramilitary rangers guarding the polling station finally moved in and the party workers, who legally should not have been anywhere near the station, scattered to avoid their swinging bamboo sticks.

"I am not surprised at all," said Sabir Hussain, 20, as he stood watching the melee while other residents of the surrounding Soldier Bazaar neighbourhood gave up and walked away. "Violence is an everyday routine in Karachi."

While voting was carried out smoothly and without reports of fraud in Pakistan's most populous and politically influential province, Punjab, its largest city was racked with violence and widespread reports of poll rigging. Allegations on all sides were difficult to confirm. The election commission of Pakistan announced that it had been unable to carry out free and fair elections in the city, and suspended polling at 40 stations in one constituency alone, saying the polls would be held again.

Karachi's politics are unique in Pakistan, where ethnic parties have killed thousands of each others' members over the past five years in battles for influence.

The MQM was accused by its rivals yesterday of rigging the polls in areas of the city where it has traditionally dominated, and the Jamaat Islami (JI), Karachi's third-largest party,said that it was boycotting elections in the city.

"MQM workers are openly displaying arms and torturing people, they are harassing people, how it is possible to conduct fair and free elections in such an atmosphere?" senior JI leader Muhammad Hussain Mehnati said at party headquarters yesterday.

The MQM, for its part, accused the JI and other parties of similar fraud and intimidation.

As the news of the JI's boycott spread, voters waiting in line at Abdullah College in the North Nazimabad area were furious. Many in the working-class district had spent hours waiting to cast their ballot for the JI and men shouting curses at the party tore down its posters.

"My vote has been completely wasted," said Lalzaib Khan, 27.

While the voting process was more tumultuous and controversial than expected, terrorist attacks and killings continued in the city. A bomb killed 10 people outside an office of the Awami National Party while a roadside bomb in the city killed one person riding in a bus of ANP supporters.

There were even claims of fraud in Karachi's exclusive residential sections near the ocean, which saw an unprecedented turnout among elite residents in support of former cricket star Imran Khan's Movement for Justice party.

Hundreds of fashionably dressed young men and women, as well as older voters, had already been waiting for two hours for polls to open, but election officials said that ballot papers had yet to arrive. Some in line at the DA Model School polling station thought the delay was a conspiracy to deny the Movement for Justice a victory in the only constituency in Karachi where it stands a chance.

Many, however, planned to wait for as long as necessary. Salman Naqvi, a banker, said this was the first election he had voted in. "I just see some sort of light in Imran Khan," he said. "Everyone else is a bunch of crooks."

Zaihan Shafi, a 28, also a first-time voter and Imran Khan supporter, was not concerned about the threat of violence or rigging, and said she was looking forward to taking advantage of election day deals at a nearby luxury mall: "I'm going to hit up every restaurant giving away free stuff."