A suicide bomber killed at least 29 people near a polling centre as Pakistanis voted on Wednesday in a knife-edge general election, pitting cricket hero Imran Khan against the party of the jailed former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

In the initial round of counting, Mr. Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) was leading in 64 seats, while its main rival, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) of Mr. Sharif, was ahead in 46. The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) of former President Asif Ali Zardari was leading in 28 seats.

Police vehicle targeted

The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack that hospital officials said killed 29 people and wounded 35 in the western city of Quetta. Security sources said the bomber drove his motorcycle into a police vehicle.

About 106 million people were registered to vote in the election, which closed at 6 p.m. Mr. Sharif’s party had called for voting to be extended by an hour, saying people were still lining up and could be turned away without casting ballots. TV channels said election officials denied the request.

About 3,71,000 soldiers were stationed at polling stations, nearly five times the number deployed during the 2013 election. PTI has inched ahead of the PML(N) in recent national polls, but even if it gets the most votes, it will likely struggle to win a majority of the 272 seats in the National Assembly, raising the prospect of weeks of haggling to form a messy coalition government.

The PML(N) has sought to turn the vote into a referendum on Pakistan’s democracy, and has said it is campaigning to protect the “sanctity of the vote,” a reference to a history of political interference by the military.

‘Most important poll’

“This is the most important election in Pakistan’s history,” Mr. Khan, 65, said after casting his vote in the capital Islamabad. “I ask everyone today — be a citizen, cherish this country, worry about this country, use your vote.”

Mr. Khan has staunchly denied allegations by the PML(N) that he is getting help from the military, which has ruled Pakistan for about half of its history and still sets key security and foreign policy in the nuclear-armed nation. The Army has also dismissed allegations of meddling in the election.

(
With inputs from PTI
)

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