Pak to go to polls tomorrow; coalition government likely

Millions of Pakistanis will go to the polls tomorrow to vote for a landmark democratic transition of power after a bloody campaign, marred by Taliban violence that killed over 100 people, forced key parties to abandon rallies and large gatherings.

The 63-year-old Nawaz Sharif-led PML-N is widely tipped to emerge as the single largest party in the polls. He could end up becoming a premier for the third time if he is able to cobble together a coalition comprising the religious, nationalist and right wing parties that are expected to do well in the provinces.

A spirited campaign over the past few weeks by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, 60, has boosted the chances of his Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf party, particularly in Punjab province which has 147 – or more than half – of the 272 parliamentary seats for which polls will be held.

Some experts point out that Khan, who is hospitalised after having fallen down from a forklift during campaign, could gain some sympathy votes.

The National Assembly or lower house of parliament has a total of 342 seats and the rest will be allocated to women and minority candidates nominated by parties.
Over 86 million people are registered to vote but elections in Pakistan have traditionally registered low turnouts.

A total of 4,670 candidates are standing for parliamentary elections while nearly 11,000 are running for the four provincial assemblies.

Parties like the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf, Pakistan Peoples Party and PML-N have sought to attract many youths who will be voting for the first time.

The PML-N and Khan's party were the only major political forces that were able to conduct a nationwide campaign after the banned Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan warned that it would target leaders and rallies of the secular-leaning PPP, Awami National Party and Muttahida Qaumi Movement, which were part of the outgoing coalition.

This would be the first time in Pakistan's history that a democratic transition of power would take place. The previous PPP-led government had for the first time completed its five year term in the country that has seen numerous militaRy coups.

Over 100 people, including ANP and MQM candidates, were killed in gun and bomb attacks by the Taliban and other militant groups during the campaign.

The threats dramatically curtailed campaigning by these parties and the PPP's campaign was particularly lacklustre.

PPP chief Bilawal Bhutto Zardari did not address even a single rally and his only campaign appearances were in a set of videos.

The ANP coined a new campaign slogan – 'Watan ya kafan' (homeland or coffin) – after the Taliban repeatedly targeted its workers and leaders both in the lawless northwest and in Karachi, the country's largest city.

Hours before campaigning ended yesterday, suspected militants kidnapped PPP leader and former premier Yousuf Raza Gilani’s son at Multan in Punjab.

"This was an uneven campaign and a distorted environment for political forces. The liberal and progressive parties were discriminated against by non-state actors and the caretaker government could not do much about the unfair polling environment," said Raza Rumi, editor of The Friday Times.

Despite these drawbacks and the anti-incumbency factor, the PPP is expected to do well in its traditional stronghold of Sindh and some areas of Punjab.

Other smaller parties like the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam led by Maulana Fazlur Rehman and the Balochistan National Party-Mengal are expected to pick up several parliamentary seats in the northwest and Balochistan, respectively.

The fractured political landscape means Pakistan is set for another coalition government, say pundits and commentators.

"Nawaz Sharif will make gains and may emerge as the single largest party though Imran Khan may spring some surprises and his vote share may make him relevant for the future," Raza Rumi told PTI.

"The problems in forming government in the event of a hung parliament, as well as managing a coalition will be a nightmare," he said.

"Pakistan could possibly be headed towards another phase of unstable politics".

The powerful military has so far limited its role to providing some 70,000 soldiers to secure the polls though some commentators have accused the security establishment of backing players like Imran Khan so that it can have a say in the next parliament.

Some parties like the PML-N have openly accused Khan of having "received a boost" from former ISI chief Ahmed Shuja Pasha.

Others believe the army under Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani has gradually distanced itself from politics though it retains the capacity to influence Pakistan's foreign policy in key areas, especially relations with the US and India and the future of war-torn Afghanistan.

"The army has moved away from directly or indirectly interfering in politics and Gen Kayani has fully supported democracy. There is a definite change in the military leadership, which realises this is best for the country and wants a truly representative government that can take bold decisions about the challenges facing Pakistan," said Lt Gen (retired) Talat Masood, a leading security analyst.

However, the army will have greater space for influencing policy-making if the polls throw up a weak coalition, Masood said.

"The army will remain a big player in framing foreign and security policies till the civilians develop capacity and earn the confidence of the security set-up," he told PTI.

Meanwhile, violence continued unabated in the run-up to the polls.

Fifteen people were killed in a bombing and a militant attack in northwest Pakistan today even though some 600,000 security personnel have been deployed across the country to secure the polls.

About half the 70,000 polling stations have been declared at risk of attack.
Among the key issues of concern to voters is an economy in free fall, an energy crisis that leaves large swathes of rural areas without electricity for 20 hours a day, militancy and terrorism, rampant corruption and bad governance.

Though some politicians like Imran Khan highlighted policies and issues during their campaign, personalities and clans have figured more prominently in elections in rural areas.

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