ISLAMABAD (AP) — An especially violent spate of killings, kidnappings and bombings marred the run-up to Pakistan's nationwide election, capped Thursday by the abduction of the son of a former prime minister as he was rallying supporters on the last day of campaigning before the historic vote.
Saturday's election marks the first time in Pakistan's military coup-riddled history that a civilian government has finished its term and will hand over power to another. But the significance of the occasion has been overshadowed by the relentless violence targeting mostly liberal, secular parties.
More than 125 people have been killed by a series of bombings and shootings that can mostly be traced to Taliban militants who have vowed to disrupt a democratic process they view as un-Islamic. Separatists in the southwestern province of Baluchistan have also attacked candidates and their supporters across the political spectrum.
There was no claim of responsibility for the abduction of 25-year-old Ali Haider Gilani, but suspicion immediately fell on the Taliban. Gilani is running for a provincial assembly seat under the banner of the Pakistan People's Party, one of three parties the Taliban has singled out for retribution because they supported military operations against Taliban insurgents in northwestern Pakistan.
His father, Yousuf Raza Gilani, is a longtime member of the PPP who served as prime minister while many of those military operations were carried out.
The younger Gilani was leaving an election event in the city of Multan in southern Punjab province when attackers pulled up in a car and motorcycle, sprayed the area with bullets, threw him into one of the vehicles and drove off, officials and witnesses said.
"One of the gunmen grabbed Haider, who had blood splashed on his trousers," said rally participant Shehryar Ali in comments aired by Pakistani television broadcaster Geo News.
The former prime minister has been campaigning heavily in Multan to help his three sons, who are all running for elected office in the district, but he was not at the rally when his son was taken.
Appearing shaken, the elder Gilani said in televised comments that two bodyguards were killed in the attack, but he did not know whether his son was wounded.
"His two guards were shielding him, and they died," the former premier said. "I urge all of my party supporters to remain peaceful and participate in the vote."
Gilani was forced out of office last summer by the Supreme Court after refusing to pursue a corruption case against President Asif Ali Zardari.
Although his ouster from office meant he could not run in this election, the Gilani family is still heavily represented in the Multan district races. In addition to the son who was abducted, the former prime minister has two sons running for national assembly seats.
The Pakistan People's Party, along with the Karachi-based Muttahida Quami Movement and the Awami National Party, have been singled out for attack by the Taliban. All were part of the outgoing government during a time when there were repeated military offensives against Taliban militants in the tribal areas.
The threat has forced all three to severely curtail their election events. Instead of the large, outdoor rallies the PPP used in 2008 to whip up support among thousands of voters, the party has relied on television and newspaper ads and smaller indoor gatherings where security is more manageable. In northwest Pakistan, candidates from the Awami National Party held election events inside private homes under heavy security or reached out to voters via social media and by telephone.
Officials with the PPP lashed out Thursday after Gilani's abduction, saying the security forces have done little to protect them.
"We were screaming that we need security for our candidates. We were saying that we have received threats, but no one heard our pleas, and we did not get security," said a party spokeswoman, Sharmila Farouqi. "Now see what has happened. The son of a former prime minister has been kidnapped."
There is also concern that the inability of the three parties to properly campaign will unfairly tilt the race in the favor of parties who have a more favorable view toward the Taliban and oppose military operations in the tribal areas.
The Pakistani Taliban has been waging a bloody insurgency in Pakistan for years to enforce Islamic law in the country and break the government's alliance with the United States in fighting militants. They have killed thousands of civilians and security personnel in scores of gun and bomb attacks.
But in recent weeks even those parties favoring negotiations have not been immune.
On Thursday, a bomb targeting an election office of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam in the North Waziristan tribal area near Afghanistan killed one person, according to two Pakistani intelligence officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam is considered more favorable to the Pakistani Taliban and has supported negotiations with the militants over military operations.
It was the third attack on the party this week. On Monday, 25 people died when a bomb exploded at an election rally, and 13 people died Tuesday in two separate attacks targeting party representatives.
Regardless of the security threats, the PPP is expected to fare poorly in the vote after presiding over a five-year term that saw inflation skyrocket and widespread electricity blackouts become the norm across the country.
The Pakistan Muslim League-N, headed by two-time former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, is seen as the front-runner, while the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, headed by former cricket star Imran Khan, is considered a wild card who could gain significant seats.
Khan may also benefit from widespread sympathy following a fall Tuesday during an election rally in the eastern city of Lahore while he was being raised by a forklift to a stage to address his followers. The 60-year-old Khan fractured a vertebra in his neck and two in his back, cracked a rib and cut his head in the accident, which kept him from participating in the last days of the campaign.
On Thursday, Khan addressed a rally of at least 25,000 flag-waving supporters in Islamabad via video link from his hospital bed, asking them to make sure to vote for his party on election day.
Associated Press writers Asif Shahzad in Islamabad, Zaheer Babar in Lahore and Rasool Dawar in Peshawar contributed to this report.
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