In Pakistan, voters brave chaos and long lines

KARACHI, Pakistan Sat May 11, 2013 12:21pm EDT

1 of 2. A paramilitary soldier (L) stands guard as men stand in line while waiting for their turn to cast their vote at a polling station in Karachi May 11, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Akhtar Soomro

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KARACHI, Pakistan (Reuters) - A doctor stood in line for hours to vote in Pakistan's election, slipped away to deliver a baby and then returned to choose a candidate - only to find the polling booth never opened.

Her experience underlined the determination of millions of Pakistanis to take part in the election that will, for the first time, hand power from one civilian government to another in a coup-prone country.

But it also exposed a process that even the Election Commission acknowledged was flawed in the commercial capital and biggest city Karachi. It said polling would be re-run in 40 locations.

Minutes before polls were due to close, the commission issued a terse statement: "We have been unable to carry out free and fair elections in Karachi."

Problems were not limited to Karachi, however.

In the garrison city of Rawalpindi, police cleared a women's voting station 25 minutes before polls closed.

"Ballot papers ran out while there were still 200 women queued outside," said Ijaz Shaikh, who accompanied his wife to vote. "How can there be fewer ballot papers than the number of registered voters at a polling station?"

Breathless 24/7 news channels began reporting the partial count while many were still queuing in places where voting had started hours behind schedule.

As one channel announced partial results, another showed a group of men at a counting center emptying containers of ballot papers that fell in a muddle across a table.

The election was also disrupted in Karachi by bomb blasts, including one that targeted the office of a political party, killing 11 people and wounding about 40.

The Pakistan Taliban, which regards the elections as un-Islamic, has killed more than 120 people in recent weeks in a bid to undermine the polls.

But incompetence was mostly to blame for the frustrations.

Dr. Sadia Ahsan Pal, a gynecologist, was among thousands who fumed outside polling stations. Her daughters kept a place in the queue while she delivered a baby. But the booth never opened.

"If you're talking about free and fair elections this is the biggest scam on two legs," said Karachi tax lawyer Abid Shaban, who did manage to vote - after a five-hour wait.

(Additional reporting by Mehreen Zahra-Malik; Writing by Katharine Houreld in Islamabad; Editing by John Chalmers)

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