10 dead as Taliban step up threats to Pakistan vote
A Pakistani army soldier loads ballot boxes into a van at the distribution point in Rawalpindi on May 10, 2013. Attacks targeting Pakistan's landmark elections killed 10 people on the eve of the vote as the Taliban stepped up threats Friday, warning voters to boycott polling stations to save their lives.
Polls open at 8:00 am (0300 GMT) and close at 5:00 pm, allowing an electorate of more than 86 million to vote for the 342-member national assembly and four provincial assemblies in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab, Sindh and Baluchistan.
Saturday's vote marks the first time that an elected civilian administration has completed a full term and handed power to another through the ballot box in a country where there have been three military coups and four military rulers.
The front-runner is ex-prime minister Nawaz Sharif, head of the centre-right Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) but the campaign has been electrified by former cricket star Imran Khan with promises of reform and an end to corruption.
The charismatic 60-year-old leader of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) tapped into a last-minute surge of support after fracturing his spine when he fell from a stage at a campaign rally on Tuesday.
The main issues at stake are the tanking economy, an appalling energy crisis which causes power cuts of up to 20 hours a day, the alliance in the US-led war on Islamist militants, chronic corruption and the dire need for development.
Pakistan's umbrella Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) movement says democracy is un-Islamic and has singled out the outgoing parties for particular threat, curtailing campaigning for the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and its main allies.
Attacks on politicians and parties have killed 127 people since mid-April, according to an AFP tally, and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) said the elections were the most violent in the country's history.
"To revolt against this system, the TTP have planned several actions on May 11, so we appeal to the people to stay away from polling stations to save their lives," Taliban spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan said.
More than 600,000 security personnel are being deployed nationwide and around half the estimated 70,000 polling stations have been declared at risk of attack, many of them in insurgency-torn parts of Baluchistan and the northwest.
A senior PPP official said party chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari -- the son of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto -- will not vote because of threats to his life.
In fresh violence on Friday, a candidate for the provincial assembly in Sindh was shot dead along with two supporters in the financial capital Karachi.
Gunmen attacked an armed convoy carrying ballot papers in Mastung district, south of Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan province, killing two security personnel.
In the northwest, a motorbike bomb killed four people and wounded 15 close to offices of different parties in the main town of North Waziristan, the premier stronghold of Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked groups on the Afghan border.
And a bomb near an office of the secular Awami National Party in the northwestern district of Swabi killed one person and injured three others.
There were no claims of responsibility for any of Friday's attacks.
A spokesman confirmed that President Asif Ali Zardari had voted by post in the election after the Taliban directly threatened his PPP party.
Zardari's wife, Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated in a gun and suicide attack in 2007 before the last election and her successor as PPP chairman, their son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, is too young to run.
Presidency spokesman Farhatullah Babar confirmed to AFP that Bilawal had been denied permission for a postal ballot but did not give an explanation.
The HRCP has voiced "acute concern" not just over threats and violence targeting individuals "but much more from the manner in which the violence has already impaired the fairness of the elections almost beyond repair".
Sharif, who has twice served as prime minister, made an impassioned final plea to thousands of supporters Thursday, promising to change the country's course if elected.
"If you give us five years, you will see that we can change the fate of this country," said the emotional PML-N leader.
Despite his high-energy campaign, a question mark hangs over how well Khan will do, considering he won only one seat in 2002. He boycotted polls in 2008.
Although he is expected to make a full recovery following his fall, he is flat on his back in hospital and aides say he cannot even vote.
"God has given you this golden opportunity. Don't let it go. You should give change a chance," Khan told his supporters during a deeply personal speech via video link on Thursday.