Islamabad: Lawmakers were voting on 6 October in a presidential election that Pakistan’s military ruler is expected to sweep, although he could yet face disqualification by the Supreme Court.
President General Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup, faces a retired judge as his chief rival, in his bid to secure a new five-year term.
But with opposition parties either abstaining or boycotting the election in protest at Musharraf running while army chief, he looks bound to win the most votes by far.
Lawmakers at a joint session of the National Assembly and Senate in Islamabad, and in the four provincial assemblies began voting around the country soon after 10:00 am.
Called in alphabetical order, senators cast votes first, going behind a black curtain to mark their ballots then placing them in a transparent plastic box. The voting, due to end by 3 pm, was broadcast live on national television.
However, the Supreme Court on Friday ruled the official results can only be declared after it rules on petitions lodged by Musharraf’s opponents that his candidacy is unconstitutional.
Hearings will resume on those petitions 17 October, meaning even if Musharraf wins he would have to wait at least 11 days before knowing whether he could take up office.
His current presidential term expires 15 November.
Speculation persists that if he is blocked, he might declare martial law.
Musharraf has seen his popularity plummet since a failed bid to oust the country’s top judge in March, and has promised to give up his powerful army post if he wins the election and restore civilian rule.
He says he wants to stay on to continue policies that have turned around Pakistan’s economy despite its position on the front line of the American-led war on terrorism.
His candidacy has angered civil society and opposition activists.
Chanting slogans against Musharraf, dozens of lawyers clashed with police outside the provincial assembly in the northwestern city of Peshawar. They burned a police vehicle, threw rocks at officers, and burned an effigy of Musharraf before police swinging batons dispersed them.
But Information Minister Mohammed Ali Durrani hailed it as a “great and very important day for Pakistan,” and said the government would respect the Supreme Court ruling.
The US-allied leader looks set to hatch an alliance with exiled former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto after parliamentary elections due by January. On Friday, he signed into law an amnesty quashing corruption charges against her and other politicians.
That persuaded Bhutto’s party to withdraw a threat to resign from Parliament, as other opposition parties have done, although they will still abstain from the vote.
Vice chairman of Bhutto’s party, Makhdoom Amin Fahim, told the joint session of Parliament before voting began Saturday it “cannot elect a person in uniform as president.”
There was some confusion whether Fahim, who had been nominated as a candidate by the party in case Musharraf was disqualified, was contesting the vote or not. Asked if he was a candidate, Fahim only said, “We are abstaining.”
That left Wajihuddin Ahmad _ a retired judge who was nominated by anti-Musharraf lawyers and has emerged as the general’s main rival in the vote.
There was a heavy police presence outside the Parliament building in Islamabad, but the city was quiet. Security forces were also deployed outside the four provincial assemblies across Pakistan.
About 20 human rights activists, mostly women, gathered outside Parliament, chanting “Go, Musharraf Go!” and wearing black armbands.
“We don’t want the world to think this is a nation without conscience. There are people who would not want military rule,” said Asma Jehangir, chairperson of the nongovernment Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
Some 1,170 legislators are entitled to cast their ballots, but some 200 opposition lawmakers have quit in protest against Musharraf.
Although the Supreme Court has ruled that official results will have to wait its adjudication of the petitions against Musharraf’s candidacy, the attorney-general said Friday the unofficial result of the election could still be announced after Saturday’s vote.
Ahmed’s polling agent Tariq Mahmood said the Election Commission should seal the ballot boxes and not count the votes until the Supreme Court ruling.