Pakistanis voted today for a new Parliament in elections shadowed by fears of violence and questions about the political survival of President Pervez Musharraf, a key U.S. ally in the war on terror.
The vote was delayed six weeks after former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated on Dec. 27, and polls opened today amid tight security.
"We pray to God that there is peace," said Kanwar Mohammed Dilshad, deputy chief of the Election Commission. "We pray for record turnout."
The outcome remained tough to call because of the scarcity of reliable polls, but Musharraf, who was re-elected in October to a new five-year term as president, has faced growing public anger over his moves last year to declare emergency rule, purge the judiciary and curb independent media. An overwhelming victory by the opposition would leave him politically vulnerable, even at risk of impeachment.
Two public opinion surveys by U.S. groups have suggested that if the election is fair, Bhutto's party will finish first, followed by another opposition party led by another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif. The pro-Musharraf party - the Pakistani Muslim League-Q - is trailing in third.
Anti-Musharraf politicians repeated allegations Sunday - denied by officials - that the government planned to rig the balloting in favor of the ruling party.
Sharif, who was ousted by Musharraf in a 1999 military coup, warned that if the results are rigged, the opposition will launch a nationwide protest movement "from which those rigging it will not be able to escape."
Musharraf's party predicts it will fare strongly in rural areas of the largest province, Punjab.
Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., who joined several American lawmakers in monitoring the voting, urged Pakistani authorities to ensure that the elections are free and fair, warning that the country could face greater instability if the vote is rigged.