Pakistanis Brave Violence To Cast Historic Votes

Pakistanis voted in parliamentary elections Saturday after a violent campaign season that left dozens dead. NPR's Julie McCarthy is in Lahore and tells Weekends on All Things Considered guest host Arun Rath the latest.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

In Pakistan today, millions went to the polls to elect new government. NPR's Julie McCarthy has been following the candidates, their campaigns and issues leading up to this. She joins us now from Lahore. Welcome, Julie.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Thank you.

RATH: So in the last 24 hours, we've heard a lot about the threats and violence aimed at stopping voters, and even shutting down polling places. What's the significance of this election? Can you put it into context for people?

MCCARTHY: Well, first of all, there were plenty of problems. I mean, the voting was subverted in Karachi by deadly violence and, really, banal incompetence. Polling started around noon because the election materials didn't show up. And in one huge constituency, voting didn't start until 6 o'clock in the evening. Now, here in Lahore, people complained to me about being turned away. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan faults the fact that polling staff had been poorly trained, couldn't accommodate the rush.

There was a heavy turnout. People voted in spite of the threats to their lives despite the fact that militants wanted to shut them down. This election really moves Pakistan, Arun, closer to civilian rule. It strengthens their civilian rule. We saw the military stand aside, which always gives people jitters here around election time. In fact, they wanted the election. So passing power from one democratically elected government to another is what's happening here for the first time in Pakistan.

RATH: And can you talk us a little bit through the leading candidates? Especially curious about how the former cricket star Imran Khan did.

MCCARTHY: Yes. Well, the leader tonight is former two-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif. He's edging in preliminary returns toward a majority. He told supporters he didn't want to use crutches, meaning no coalition partners. Now, Imran Khan, the former cricket player, as you point out, turned political leader, is tonight exceeding expectations. Again, early returns show him outpacing the Pakistan People's Party.

Khan managed to turn this into a two-man race between himself and Nawaz Sharif, really playing on voters' alienation with the People's Party that's ruled the past five years and didn't have much to show for it.

RATH: So what happens next? Does Sharif have enough of a majority to form a government to be undisputed leader?

MCCARTHY: Well, we don't know that yet. But if there is no majority, you're looking at coalition building and fractured government. And the problem with that is Pakistan needs a united front to tackle this myriad of problems it faces - joblessness and no clean water and rampant corruption and a very little tax base. There's lousy health care. There's weak education. And, of course, there's the militancy that's destabilizing the place. So they really need to get united fast.

RATH: NPR's Julie McCarthy speaking to us from Lahore, Pakistan. Thanks, Julie.

MCCARTHY: Thank you.

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