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Mon 18 Feb 2008 01:13 PM

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Pakistan's heartland silenced in elections

Lahore, the city which traditionally decides winning candiate, apathetic on critical voting day.

Lahore may be Pakistan's political heartland, but as the country voted Monday, many of the city's residents appeared disillusioned and indifferent to the elections.

Traditionally the party that wins Lahore, in the populous Punjab province, wins Pakistan, and the three major parties have covered the city with garish election posters promoting candidates.

But with fears of violence and vote rigging overshadowing the polls, queues at polling stations were short and many of the city's poor wanted little to do with politics.

"I am poor and downtrodden, and most of the candidates belong to the rich class," said 40-year-old Syad Ahsan Jafri. "They don't come into power to serve the people or for the good of poor people."

Jafri said he would not be voting Monday, but his wife - clad head to foot in a black veil - said she would be casting her ballot for the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), the party of slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto.

Mohammad Ashraf, a watchman wrapped up in a scarf against the cold, said that he had little confidence in President President Pervez Musharraf, but would not use his vote against him.

"The only important question for poor people is where can we go to feed our children," he told AFP.

Since Bhutto's death in a suicide attack in December, many of the poor feel they have lost their champion and are embittered with politics as inflation soars and basic commodities such as flour are in short supply.

"She was the only woman in Pakistan who represented the womenfolk properly, raising their problems in parliament," said 42-year-old Israr.

Israr was one of just a smattering of people who braved fears of attacks and the chilly weather in Lahore to cast an early vote in parliamentary elections seen as crucial to future stability in Pakistan.

Tensions are high after five people including one election candidate were shot dead in the city overnight, while across the country polling stations have been bombed and scores have died in pre-election bloodshed.

"I want to vote and get it over and done with in case of any incidents. Everybody is worried. The shootings definitely made us terrified, that's why I came so early," said Riffat Hassan, a 42-year-old government employee.

At Queen Mary College in central Lahore, where election posters plastered the gates, polling agents and gun-toting police greatly outnumbered voters after polls opened at 8:00am (0300 GMT).

Walking past the heavily-guarded polling station with a sickly child in her arms, 20-year-old Razia said someone else will be using her identity card and casting her vote for her.

"I don't feel interested in politics," she told AFP.

There have been widespread allegations of electoral fraud by opposition parties and human rights groups, prompting Musharraf to deny the claims and vow that the elections will be free of rigging.

Opinion polls suggest that if elections are free and fair, PPP will likely get the most support, while the party backing Musharraf is trailing in third place behind former premier Nawaz Sharif's political outfit.

Punjab province is a key battleground, home to 148 of the 272 seats up for grabs in the National Assembly, and, despite widespread apathy, some voters were participating.

In Rawalpindi, the Punjab garrison town where Bhutto was assassinated, physician Nadir Ali Khan wore a badge with the photograph of close Musharraf ally Sheikh Rashid.

"I am not especially in favor of Sheikh Rashid or PML-Q (Pakistan Muslim League-Q, the former ruling party) but my uncle ordered me to vote for them. It's like that here, these are our customs and you can't escape from them," he said.

"My choice would have been Nawaz Sharif. But it's true that Sheikh Rashid is doing a lot for the people here."

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