Karachi // The Pakistani Taliban has issued a stark warning for voters to stay away from polling stations in today's elections, as the deaths of eight people in a series bombings and a shootout yesterday underlined the danger facing those seeking to participate in the country's first ever democratic transition of power.
The bloodiest campaigning in Pakistan's history ended at midnight on Thursday with political leaders giving passionate final speeches.
But it was more of the same from the Pakistani Taliban (TPP).
"Democracy is against Islam and is a system for infidels," the Pakistani Taliban spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan said.
"To revolt against this system, the TTP have planned several actions on May 11 so we appeal to the people to stay away from polling stations to save their lives."
Front-runner Nawaz Sharif rallied supporters in Lahore while his rival, cricket legend Imran Khan, addressed 35,000 people in Islamabad through a video link from his hospital bed, where he has been since a fall on Tuesday.
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"I pay my gratitude to all those people who stood with me during these 17 years, believing that one day our country would be ready for change," Mr Khan said, tears in his eyes. "Today that day has come."
who oppose democracy in principle and have waged in particular a relentless campaign of terror against the secular parties of the outgoing government who supported military operations against them, severely limiting their ability to campaign.
A spokesman for the president, Asif Ali Zardari, whose Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) is among those targeted by the Pakistani Talban, said yesterday that he had cast his vote by postal ballot. The president's two daghter had also cast their votes by post, Farhatullah Babar told Agence France-Presse.
In Miran Shah, the main town of the North Waziristan tribal agency and a stronghold of the Pakistani Taliban, a bomb planted in a motorcycle was detonated yesterday near the offices of a number of parties contesting in the elections, killing at least three and wounding 15.
Also in the north, two local leaders of the Awami National Party were killed in a blast in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, the Dawn newspaper reported.
In the Quetta, the capital of western Balochistan province, a bomb exploded on the roof of an office of a PPP candidate. The province is home to both Taliban groups and a non-religious nationalist Baloch insurgency.
The Pakistani Taliban or an affiliated militant faction are also suspected of kidnapping the son of former premier Yousuf Raza Gilani from a rally on Thursday afternoon in the southern Punjab city of Multan.
Mr Gilani said the abduction of his youngest son, 25-year-old Ali Haider Gilani, should not affect today's polls. "The election process should continue," he said at a news conference in Multan.
Three people, including an independent candidate, were killed in a shootout in Karachi last night, Dawn reported, though it was thought that warring political factions rather than the Taliban were responsible.
Gun and bomb attacks on politicians and party offices have killed at least 120 people, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) said yesterday. The centre-right parties of Mr Khan and Mr Sharif have been spared by the Taliban, and the campaign season in their heartland of Punjab almost appeared to be happening in a separate country, as the other provinces have seen unrelenting violence.
Both Mr Sharif and Mr Khan have said they support negotiations with the Pakistani Taliban, with Mr Khan going so far as to say he would shoot down American drones that target the group.
In a statement, the HRCP said its "acute concern on the eve of elections does not stem merely from threats and violence targeting this individual or that but much more from the manner in which the violence has already impaired the fairness of the elections almost beyond repair".
It urged the security services to "stretch themselves to their absolute limit to ensure security of voters, candidates and polling stations on Saturday so that the people can exercise their right to choose their representatives".
More than 600,000 security personnel, including tens of thousands of soldiers, have been deployed to guard polling stations in constituencies deemed sensitive by Pakistan's election commission. Army vehicles were visible on the streets of Karachi last night.
There have been few opinion polls during the long and unpredictable election cycle, with Mr Khan surging early on the back of massive rallies in 2011 before losing momentum last year. But survey results released on Wednesday by the political magazine Herald had Mr Khan's Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf party almost even with Mr Sharif's faction of the Pakistan Muslim League, with 24.98 per cent of voters planning to support Mr Khan.
The poll had the PPP, which ruled for the past five years, in third place.
Analysts expect weeks of post-election wrangling to decide the make-up of what will likely be a weak coalition government.
* With additional reporting by AFP