As Pakistan goes to vote on Saturday it has reason to celebrate as this is the first time in its history that an elected government will finish its term and hand over power to a democratically elected successor. However, these are also Pakistan’s most violent elections with more than 100 people already killed in attacks on candidates and election rallies. The latest episode is the kidnapping of a son of Yusuf Raza Gilani even as a letter from the leader of the Pakistan’s Taliban Hakimullah Mehsud threatens attacks on polling day in an attempt at intimidation and to cripple voter turnout. These elections thus take place in the backdrop of a resurgence of extremism, radical anti-state organisations and Islamist parties. With both the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP)and the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) headed by Nawaz Sharif competing fiercely, the results this time have been rendered unpredictable by the impressive performance of Imran Khan and his Tehreek-e-Insaf party. It is, however, widely predicted that Sharif holds the upper hand and may get a majority, failing which Pakistan is in for a period of coalition government.
Perhaps the most important factor in these elections is the demographic transition that has taken place in this country with almost half the voters being between the ages of 18 to 35, many of whom have never voted. This new electorate is expected to be a determinant in any change in direction in this country but its preferences are yet not tested and are an unknown factor in these elections. Not surprisingly many of the issues in the elections pertain to governance even as Pakistan continues to be on the international list of ‘failing states’. These range from corruption to water and power shortages as also worsening insurgencies and growing economic woes. Pakistan’s short history so far has consisted of rule by a series of military regimes that have, in recent decades, been interspersed with periods of civilian rule. The army has not yet given up its position of importance in Pakistan and is a sharer of power, continuing to dominate various aspects of policy-making in the state, pushing forward an agenda that suits its interests thereby distorting governance. The outcome of these elections is important as it may set Pakistan on a course where such imbalances are reduced which may result in Pakistan becoming a more stable and responsible nation.