30 killed in suicide bombing at Pakistan polling station

Elections could propel former World Cup cricketer Imran Khan to power after a campaign marred by violence and claims of military interference

Pakistani election workers collect ballot boxes and polling material from a distribution center in Quetta, Pakistan, July 24, 2018 (AP Photo/Arshad Butt)
Pakistani election workers collect ballot boxes and polling material from a distribution center in Quetta, Pakistan, July 24, 2018 (AP Photo/Arshad Butt)

At least 30 people were killed and dozens more wounded in a suicide attack on a polling station in the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta, officials said, as millions voted in a nationwide election Wednesday.

“(The bomber) was trying to enter the polling station. When police tried to stop him he blew himself up,” a local administration official in Quetta, Hashim Ghilzai, told AFP.

Dr. Wasim Baig, spokesman for the Sandeman Provincial Hospital in Quetta, said the death toll had risen to 30 after two people succumbed to their injuries. Earlier, officials had said 28 people were killed and more than 30 injured.

The attack was not immediately claimed by any group.

Balochistan, Pakistan’s poorest and most restive province, suffers from Islamist and separatist insurgencies.

It suffered the brunt of a series of attacks that killed more than 180 people across Pakistan during the brief but acrimonious election campaign, including a devastating blast claimed by the Islamic State group which killed 153 people this month, and was Pakistan’s deadliest ever suicide attack. The blast, which struck a crowd at a political rally, also killed local politician Siraj Raisani. He was one of three election candidates killed by militant attacks in Pakistan during the election campaign.

An earlier attack in Balochistan on Wednesday left one policeman dead and three wounded when a hand grenade was thrown at a polling station in the village of Koshk, in Khuzdar district.

The military has stationed over 370,000 personnel across Pakistan to ensure security for the election, bolstered by an additional 450,000 police.

The contest has largely become a two-way race between Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), and the incumbent Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) of ousted premier Nawaz Sharif, whose brother Shahbaz is leading its campaign.

A victim of a bomb blast is brought to a hospital in Quetta on July 13, 2018 following an attack at an election rally. (AFP/Banaras Khan)

“(The bomber) was trying to enter the polling station. When police tried to stop him he blew himself up,” a local administration official, Hashim Ghilzai, told AFP.

Pakistanis were voting Wednesday in elections that could propel former World Cup cricketer Khan to power after a campaign marred by claims of military interference.

Nearly 106 million people were eligible to vote in the parliamentary election in what is meant to be a rare democratic transition in the nuclear-armed country, which has been ruled by the powerful military for roughly half its history.

But the vote has been dubbed Pakistan’s “dirtiest election” due to widespread accusations of pre-poll rigging by the armed forces, with Khan — who captained his country to victory in the 1992 cricket World Cup — believed to be the beneficiary.

In this picture taken on June 30, 2018, Pakistan’s cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan attends an election campaign rally in Islamabad. (AFP PHOTO / AAMIR QURESHI)

The campaign season was also marred by the expansion of extremist religious parties.

Khan cast his vote in Bani Gala, a suburb of the capital Islamabad, telling the media it was “time to defeat parties which kept this country hostage for years.”

The first voter to enter a polling station in the eastern city of Lahore was a woman, business executive Maryum Arif, who told AFP she planned to vote for the PML-N as “it has served Pakistan.”

She was followed shortly after by Shahbaz Sharif, who called on Pakistanis to “get out of their homes and … change the fate of Pakistan” before casting his own vote and flashing a victory sign.

Khan is campaigning on populist promises to build a “New Pakistan,” vowing to eradicate corruption, clean up the environment and construct an “Islamic welfare” state.

But the erstwhile playboy’s campaign has been dogged by widespread accusations he is benefiting from the support of the country’s powerful security establishment, with the media, activists and think tanks decrying a “silent coup” by the generals.

The military has rejected the accusations and said it has no “direct role” in the electoral process.

Election authorities have granted military officers broad powers inside polling centers that have further stirred fears of manipulation.

A woman casts her vote at a polling station for the parliamentary elections in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, July 25, 2018 (AP Photo/B.K. Bangash)

Khan has also raised eyebrows in recent weeks by increasingly catering to hardline religious groups, particularly over the inflammatory issue of blasphemy — sparking fears a win for PTI could embolden Islamist extremists.

The PML-N says it is the target of the alleged military machinations, with candidates under pressure. Nawaz Sharif was ousted from power last year and jailed over a corruption conviction days before the vote, removing Khan’s most dangerous rival.

A third party, the Pakistan Peoples Party, headed by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari — son of slain prime minister Benazir Bhutto — could be called upon to form a coalition with any winner.

Radical groups such as the Milli Muslim League, linked to Hafiz Saeed, the man accused of masterminding the 2008 Mumbai attacks, are also contesting the polls, though many are running under the banner of smaller, lesser-known parties.

More than 19 million new voters, including millions of women and young people, may prove decisive.

“Our predictions are very murky right now. It’s still up for grabs,” Bilal Gilani, executive director of pollster Gallup Pakistan, told AFP on Tuesday.

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