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ISLAMABAD, Oct 9: After three years of military rule, Pakistanis will vote on Thursday in an election apparently designed to produce a pliant parliament but which political parties see as a chance to reassert civilian supremacy.

Pakistan’s only eighth national parliamentary election is also clouded by fears of vote-rigging voiced by opposition parties, whose charges are vehemently rejected by the government.

More than 72 million registered voters aged 18 and above from a population of 140 million are to elect the 342-seat National Assembly and four provincial assemblies amid charges by opposition parties of “pre-poll rigging” and government assurances to ensure a free and impartial vote.

Political analysts have predicted a low turnout due to the dullest campaign in Pakistan’s 55-year history, mainly due to the absence from the arena of two former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif and curbs on political processions.

Some analysts blame a perceived disenchantment of people with political parties over the past several years because of widespread allegations of corruption and bitter political rivalries that led to dismissals of governments by military or presidential interventions.

A total of 2,098 candidates are in the field for 272 general seats of the National Assembly at stake in Thursday’s voting, which will be held from 8am to 5pm at as many as 64,475 polling stations which will have 164,718 polling booths.

The remaining 60 reserved seats for women and 10 for non- Muslim minorities will be allocated on the basis of proportional representation to parties bagging at least five per cent of the total general seats.

A total of 5,110 candidates are standing for 577 general seats of four provincial assemblies of Punjab (297), Sindh (130), North West Frontier Province (99) and Balochistan (51).

The full 371-seat Punjab Assembly will have 66 reserved seats for women and eight for minorities, the 168-seat Sindh Assembly to have 29 for women and nine for minorities, the 124-seat NWFP Assembly will have 22 for women and three for minorities, and the 65-seat Balochistan Assembly 11 for women and three for minorities.

Each polling booth will have two ballot boxes — green for the National Assembly and white for the provincial assembly — except for the Islamabad capital territory and Fata, which does not have provincial seats and will have only green boxes.

Most candidates have been put up by the People’s Party Parliamentarians — the electoral formation of Ms Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) — Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), former Punjab provincial governor Mian Mohammad Azhar’s PML (Q) and the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) alliance of six religio-political parties.

Other known parties contesting at the national level — from more than 72 registered for elections — include the six- party National Alliance led by former caretaker prime minister Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi, Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf and Tahirul Qadri’s Pakistan Awami Tehrik.

Several regional parties, with strongholds in their own provinces, include the Sindh-based Muttahida Qaumi Movement of self-exiled Altaf Hussain, Awami National Party of Asfandyar Wali Khan, Nawab Akbar Bugti’s Jamhoori Watan Party, factions of Balochistan National Movement and Mahmud Khan Achakzai’s Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami Party.

Although opinion polls are not common in Pakistan, at least two of them conducted last month — including one by the British Broadcasting Corporation — have given the PPP a narrow lead in the National Assembly election. But in the absence of both Ms Benazir and Nawaz Sharif, these polls have also given Mian Azhar a hope to grab the prime minister’s slot in a hung parliament.

Opposition parties have voiced fears of manipulation on the polling day to help the PML (Q) — nicknamed the ‘king’s party’ — and other pro-Musharraf candidates.

But the government has promised to ensure free and fair election, which will be monitored by more than 200 foreign observers as well as local rights group.