ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Pakistan will go to the polls on Wednesday to elect a prime minister, who in the country's 70-year history only transfers power from one civilian government to another for the second time.
The election comes at a critical moment for a country of 200 million people and a war-stricken region. Pakistan is an atomic state, a negative but important American ally and one of the largest Muslim majority countries in the world.
This year's election could have been an opportunity for Pakistanis to celebrate their democracy. Instead, the campaign has been tarnished by the suppression of news media, allegations of military manipulation, an increase in Islamist extremist candidates, and a series of attacks on candidates and election campaigns, including one that killed 1
Here's What You Need to Know
What's going on?
Pakistan's policy has always been chaotic: the country routinely switches between elected governments and military dictatorships, and a prime minister has never completed his entire five years term. However, this year's campaign was particularly tense with the military's efforts to marginalize the former ruling party.
Despite this manipulation, Wednesday's election will serve as a kind of referendum over some of the country's key issues. Should Pakistan focus its economy on the West or on China? Is its democracy robust enough to accommodate extremist candidates supporting militancy, or should they be limited? Can the military and the courts be entrusted with objective and objective institutions?
Between Afghanistan, where an American-led war has continued for 17 years, and Pakistan, India's historic rival, there is always the danger of a conflagration. It served as a crucial base for the American forces fighting in Afghanistan, as well as a strong barrier to the same forces, and secretly provided aid and safe haven to militant groups, including the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
An Economic Crisis
But Pakistan's problems not only affect regional security – they also affect the ability to give their own people, including a growing class of young and educated Pakistanis, a chance. Despite its size and potential, the country's economy has lagged behind and faces continuing problems of corruption and environmental stress.
Tensions with the United States and other Western countries have increased – mainly because of allegations that Pakistan does not contribute enough to curbing the Afghan Taliban and other militant groups – Pakistan has increasingly turned to China for help and support. But this linchpin has its own problems, including concern about the fast-growing debt burden that Pakistan is having on China.
Who is running?
There are 122 parties that put candidates to the polls. They all promise jobs, welfare and housing plans. But the overarching theme of the election is the confrontation between the military and the governing party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, or P.M.L.-N. The party accuses the military of intimidating some of its leading figures for having defected to other blocs and unfairly supporting a rival candidate, Imran Khan.
Mr. Khan, 65, is a former international cricket star who has promised an alternative to corruption and the established political dynasties that connect voters with other leading parties. His rivals attribute his rise in polls to a backroom deal with the military, which they claim has worked to undermine the election. Mr. Khan has denied this accusation and pointed out the allegations of interference with sour grapes. Khan, whose success on the cricket field made him a name, has had a seat in the National Assembly for five years, but never headed a government. It is expected that a large number of independent candidates will join its party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf or PTI.
Nawaz Sharif, a threefold Prime Minister, had joined the country's Supreme Court last year. He was convicted of corruption and is imprisoned on his return from London to be arrested. Mr. Sharif said that these court decisions were made under the pressure of the military, which rejected his attempts as prime minister to re-establish control over the country's defense and foreign policy.
But his family remains politically powerful. His younger brother, Shehbaz Sharif, 66, is the current president of P.M.L.N. and hopes to lead the country. Until recently, he was the chief minister of Punjab, the most populous and wealthiest of the four provinces of the country and the largest source of party support.
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, 29, is the scion of one of the most famous and famous Pakistanis. crossed dynasties. He is the son and grandson of two former prime ministers, Benazir Bhutto, who was murdered, and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who was executed. His father, ex-president Asif Ali Zardari, is considered the real power in the leftist Pakistan Peoples Party.
The younger Zardari is not expected to win, but he could potentially play kingmaker if neither Mr. Khan nor Sharif gets enough votes to form a government.
Will extremists influence the outcome?
Pakistan was recently included in the "gray list" of the "Financial Action Task Force" of state sponsors of terrorism, putting pressure on the country to crack down on extremist groups. However, almost at the same time, the country's electoral commission paved the way for more candidates with extremist connections to run for office.
Among the parties seeking seats on Wednesday are Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek, the reconstituted version of a party that officials had previously banned, and Tehreek Labbaik Pakistan, which supports the country's litigious blasphemy laws.