Pakistanis vote today in an election that marks an unprecedented transfer of power between civilian governments, as a campaign marred by attacks exposed the security challenges the new administration will face.
Recent polls indicated no party getting more than 50 percent of the total in the national ballot for parliament. Two-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League was heading to win more seats than the Peoples Party of President Asif Ali Zardari, with a group led by former cricket star Imran Khan gunning for an upset with a slate of mostly first-time politicians that’s appealing to young voters.
Any prolonged wrangling over the formation of the next government would delay efforts to curb militancy that has escalated since election campaigning began in March and led to the kidnapping of former premier Yousuf Raza Gilani’s son in Multan May 9. Among the challenges for the new administration will be reviving an economy wracked by a power-supply crisis that officials said sliced 2 percentage points off growth in the last fiscal year.
“No party seems to be sweeping the polls,” Hasan-Askari Rizvi, a Lahore-based political analyst and former professor at the University of Punjab, who has written books on Pakistan, said by phone on May 7. “In the case of a coalition government, dealing with these problems will be a huge task.”
The poll is an achievement for Pakistani democracy as the government hands over power after completing a full term. The campaign has also exposed the insecurity that plagues the economy and Pakistan’s people.
Attacks on the candidates and parties that have most aggressively criticized the Taliban insurgency have killed at least 124 people. On the eve of polling, three died in an attack in the country’s tribal region, the insurgents’ stronghold where they are battling the army.
Ali Haider Gilani, who is standing for a seat in the Punjab provincial assembly, was bundled into a car by gunmen who fired into the air and shot an aide and a bodyguard dead, the Dawn newspaper reported. Muhammad Aslam, a police officer in Multan, said by phone that no ransom demand had been received.
Investors have yet to signal concern about any prolonged political jockeying, with the Karachi Stock Exchange’s 100-share index surging 18 percent this year. Boosted by higher consumer spending, earnings of companies in the benchmark gauge rose 43 percent in the past 12 months, the most among 17 Asian equity indexes, data compiled by Bloomberg show. The rupee fell 8.3 percent against the dollar over the past 12 months, as loan payments to the International Monetary Fund came due.
Khan, 60, who was forced to cut short his campaign on May 7 after sustaining back injuries in a fall at a rally, has vowed not to join a coalition led by opponents he has described as representative of an elitist politics that has failed.
He has gathered as many as 200,000 people at rallies over the last two years as a social-media driven message to end graft, improve education and tax the wealthy appealed to the third of the electorate under the age of 29.
Sharif, 63, received 37 percent support in a Gallup Pakistan survey in March, double that of the Peoples Party or Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf group. Sharif’s party has vowed to seek a consensus with opposition parties and the army if elected in a bid to counter militancy that has led to 40,000 deaths since 2001. He has said he’s open to talks with the Taliban.
“Nawaz has a strong vote bank in Punjab while the PPP is strong in south Punjab and rural Sindh,” Rashid Ahmed Khan, professor of politics at the University of Sargodha, said by phone May 9. “Khan will serve as the third or the fourth-largest party.”
Both men addressed their final rallies May 9 as the campaign period ended. Khan spoke to supporters in Islamabad through a video link from his hospital bed, urging them to vote for change. “I was confident that this nation will wake up, one day, they have woken up today,” he said.
Sharif wound up his push in his hometown of Lahore, seeking the strong mandate he said was necessary to tackle a “pile of problems.”
About half of Pakistan’s 180 million people are registered to vote before polls close at 5:00 p.m. today, with the first provisional results expected around midnight. The military will deploy 70,000 troops to help secure polling stations.
A total of 6,850 candidates are vying for the 272 directly elected seats in the 342-member lower house of parliament. The rest are reserved for women and religious minorities and will be chosen later by legislators in line with the parties’ standing in the ballot. Voters will also elect 577 lawmakers from among 16,299 candidates for four regional assemblies.
Parliament must be convened within three weeks of the poll. Elections for the prime minister begin on the second day of the parliamentary session and parties will nominate their candidates then.
Zardari, 57, is scheduled to stay as president until September, when members of the national and local assemblies will vote either to re-elect him or pick a replacement.
During the five-year rule of the Peoples Party that ended in March, growth in the $210 billion economy slumped to an average 3 percent as power cuts as long as 18 hours a day shut factories and terrorism deterred investment. The growth rate is less than half the annual pace of the previous five years.