Pakistan Sets May 11 for Landmark Election Amid Economic Slump

Pakistanis will vote in parliamentary elections on May 11, the first time that a civilian government will hand power to another through a ballot in the country’s history.

President Asif Ali Zardari’s office confirmed the election date in a statement in Islamabad yesterday. The announcement came as leading political parties debated names for a caretaker government to run the country before the vote. If they fail to agree, the Election Commission will nominate a premier.

The 342-member National Assembly was dissolved March 16 at the end of its five years, with the outgoing Pakistan Peoples Party-led government becoming the first democratically elected administration in 65 years of independence to complete its term.

Zardari’s Peoples Party trails in opinion polls, winning half the support of its leading rival, the Pakistan Muslim League of former premier Nawaz Sharif, in a March 4 survey published by Gallup Pakistan. Its popularity has shrunk amid the nation’s worst energy crisis, inflation above 7 percent, a Taliban insurgency in the northwest and growing insecurity.

There’s “some maturity in the political system when the transfer of power is taking place smoothly,” Rashid Ahmed Khan, a professor of international relations and politics at the University of Sargodha in central Pakistan, said in a phone interview. “But Pakistan’s growing security and economic challenges are overshadowing this very important achievement in the country’s history. People are questioning whether politicians are capable of solving their problems.”

Premier Choices

Whichever party wins in May will have to boost the $210 billion economy which has grown at an average 3 percent since 2007, less than half the annual pace of the previous five years and too slow to reduce poverty in the world’s sixth-most populous country. The U.S. is seeking the support of the nuclear-armed nation as it bids to stabilize Afghanistan amid plans to withdraw combat troops by the end of 2014.

Former finance minister Abdul Hafeez Shaikh, who resigned last month, and an ex-governor of the central bank, Ishrat Husain, are among candidates for interim prime minister. Zardari’s term expires in September. Pakistan’s president is elected by members of the national and regional assemblies.

Previous civilian governments have been toppled by the military, which has run the country for half its history.

While the government elected in 2002, in part headed by former Citigroup Inc. executive Shaukat Aziz, completed a five-year term, it was overseen by Pervez Musharraf, who was both president and army chief during the period.

The Peoples Party was preferred by 16 percent of respondents, according to the March analysis by Gallup Pakistan of two national polls carried out in November and February. Sharif’s PML stood at 37 percent, with ex-cricket star Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf on 16 percent. The February survey of 9,660 voters had a margin of error of 2 percent to 3 percent.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.