K.M. Chaudary, Associated Press
ISLAMABAD — Pakistanis streamed to the polls Saturday, despite a string of attacks that killed 24 people, for a historic vote pitting a former cricket star against a two-time prime minister and an unpopular incumbent.
The violence, which included blasts outside a political office in Karachi that left 10 dead, capped a bloody election season. More than 130 people have been killed in bombings and shootings over the campaign, prompting some to call this one of the deadliest votes in the country's history.
Despite the bloodshed, many see the election as a key step to solidify civilian rule in a country that has experienced three military coups. It marks the first time in Pakistan's 65-year history that a civilian government has completed its full term and handed over power in democratic voting. Previous governments have been toppled by military coups or sacked by presidents allied with the powerful army.
With the Pakistani Taliban threatening to target political parties Saturday, an estimated 600,000 security personnel fanned out across the country to protect polling sites and voters. Many Pakistanis seemed determined to cast their ballots despite the violence.
"Yes, there are fears. But what should we do?" said Ali Khan, who was waiting to vote in the northwestern city of Peshawar, where one of the blasts took place Saturday. "Either we sit in our house and let the terrorism go on, or we come out of our homes, cast our vote, and bring in a government that can solve this problem of terrorism."
In a reflection of the enthusiasm surrounding the vote, the secretary of the election commission, Ahmed Khan, told reporters in Islamabad that he expected the turnout to be "massive."
The election is being watched closely by the United States, which relies on the nuclear-armed country for help fighting Islamic militants and negotiating an end to the war in neighboring Afghanistan.
This vote is notable for more than just the historic handoff of power from one civilian government to another.
The rise of former cricket star Imran Khan has reshaped the Pakistani political scene, challenging the stranglehold of the country's two main parties and making the outcome of the vote very hard to call.
The 60-year-old Khan is facing off against the Pakistan Muslim League-N, headed by two-time former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and the Pakistan People's Party, led by President Asif Ali Zardari.
While Sharif has billed himself as the candidate of experience, Khan is trying to tap into the frustrations of millions of Pakistanis who want a change from the politicians who have dominated the nation's politics for years.
"I never voted for anyone in the past, but today my sons asked me to go to the polling station, and I am here to vote," said Mohammed Akbar in the northwestern city of Khar. "Imran Khan is promising to bring a good change, and we will support him."
Khan survived a horrific fall off a forklift during a campaign event Tuesday in the eastern city of Lahore that sent him to the hospital with three broken vertebrae and a broken rib. He is not believed to have voted Saturday because he couldn't travel to his polling place.
Nobody is sure how effective he will be in translating his widespread popularity into votes, especially considering he boycotted the 2008 election and only got one seat in 2002.
Turnout will be critical, especially among the youth. Almost half of Pakistan's more than 80 million registered voters are under the age of 35, but young people have often stayed away from the polls in the past.
The election's outcome is likely riding on the tally in the province of Punjab, Pakistan's most populous, where Sharif and Khan have been dueling for the people's support with a series of large rallies and campaign events.
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