Nearly half of Pakistan's population of 180 million will head to the polls on May 11 to vote in general elections that will play a big part in determining who will shape the country's future -- secularists, nationalists, or Islamists.
The campaign has been marred by violence, including large-scale attacks on political gatherings and targeted assassinations of candidates and key political figures. Secular parties have been hardest hit by the campaign of violence being carried out by the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan. In some provinces, separatists have carried out violent attacks.
The election is considered the world's fifth-largest, but many potential voters will not be casting ballots. In an election that will allow newly classified "third-gender" citizens (hermaphrodites, transsexuals, and transvestites) to vote and to run as candidates for the first time, societal taboos and the threat of violence in religiously conservative areas will keep tens of millions of women away from the polls.
The 48 million men and 37 million women who are registered to vote will determine who will sit in Pakistan's 342-seat lower house of parliament, the National Assembly. Voters will directly determine 272 of those seats, while 60 seats reserved for women
and 10 for minority candidates will be filled based on the proportion of the vote received by their parties.
Voting will take place in about 70,000 polling stations throughout the country, with just under 30,000 of them specifically reserved for women.
Separate votes in the provinces of Punjab, Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Balochistan will determine the composition of regional legislatures.
Among the 4,500 candidates participating in the parliamentary elections and 11,000 vying to represent provincial constituencies, winners will be determined by "first past the post" voting.
Elected lawmakers choose the country's prime minister and four provincial chief ministers by majority vote, and the winners are then free to form their administrations.
Pakistan's May 11 elections are distinguished by the lack of any broad electoral alliances among the country's major parties. The main political camps are the secularists, the Islamists, and the nationalists.
Pakistan People's Party (PPP)
The PPP is co-chaired by President Asif Ali Zardari and was the leading member of the ruling coalition that governed Pakistan for the past five years. The PPP is considered a secular and liberal political party. The PPP's support base is the southern Sindh Province, but it attracts votes from urban intellectuals, wealthy landowners, and rural and urban poor throughout the nation.
Awami National Party (ANP)
This liberal, predominately ethnic Pashtun party actively opposes the Taliban. It has ruled the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province and retains strong pockets of support in the region.
Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM)
The MQM is liberal political party with a history of winning elections in the southern seaport city of Karachi. It boasts strong support among the members of the local Urdu-speaking community known as Mohajirs, or immigrants, because their ancestors migrated from India at the time of Pakistan's creation in 1947.
Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N)
Led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the PML-N is Pakistan's leading conservative political party. It has ruled the country's most populous province, the eastern Punjab Province, for the past five years and retains a strong support base there.
Pakistan Movement for Justice (PTI)
Led by former cricket star Imran Khan, the PTI has attracted a lot of new followers among Pakistan's urban youth in recent years. The party is known for its vocal opposition to U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan and aggressive campaigning against traditional politicians.
Jamiat Ulema-e Islam (JUI)
The Jamiat Ulema-e Islam (Society of Muslim Clerics) is divided into many factions. Its largest group is headed by Maulana Fazlur Rehman, a puritanical Islamist. Mainly led by traditional Sunni clerics, the JUI wants to turn Pakistan into a Shari'a state. Its strongholds are Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province and the southwestern Balochistan Province.
Jamaat-e Islami (JI)
A pan-Islamist political party similar to Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, the Jamaat-e Islami is considered the most disciplined political machine in Pakistan. Most leaders and members are urban professionals, but the party has limited electoral appeal nationwide.
The economy, chronic power shortages, security, and the future shape of the political system -- those are four key campaign issues listed by Muhammad Waseem, a prominent Pakistani political scientist.
The elections will take place amid Pakistan's worsening relations with its eastern and western neighbors, India and Afghanistan, respectively.
But the results, Waseem says, will largely be determined at the local level based on local issues and where caste, tribal, and other ties will play a large role.
Pakistan's booming media outlets have been highly visible during the election.
Television talk shows, a favorite for late-night television viewers, have attracted many politicians because they offer opportunities to campaign for votes while criticizing opponents.
For the first time in the country's history, paid political advertisements have become popular.
Young voters and party supporters are increasingly turning to social media to campaign. But with fewer than 10 percent of Pakistanis enjoying Internet access, the impact of social media is difficult to gauge.
Security is a paramount concern ahead of the elections
, with the Taliban as well as separatist groups having acted on their threats to disrupt the campaign with violence.
The secular ANP has borne the brunt of most of the violence in its northwestern home base. Dozens of its members have been killed in suicide and bomb attacks on ANP campaign gatherings, for which the Taliban has claimed responsibility.
In the southern port city of Karachi, Islamist radicals have targeted the ANP, PPP, and the MQM for their secular leanings. The MQM claims to have lost more than 20 supporters and a candidate since campaigning began in April.
In the southwestern Balochistan Province, election sites and candidates have been attacked. Violence in the vast, resource-rich region is seen as part of a campaign by separatist Baluch nationalist factions who had warned politicians against participating in the elections and had vowed to disrupt the process.
In an ominous sign, Pakistan's election commission has declared some 21,000 polling stations across the country "sensitive" because "acts of terrorism are likely" on May 11.
The elections consist of hundreds of local contests that will be determined by money, political and religious preferences, and ties of kinship.
Pakistan's National Assembly District 1 (NA-1) in Peshawar is known for hosting many historic contests. In one of the most anticipated contests, Ghulam Ahmed Bilour, a former railways minister from the ANP, is vying for reelection against former cricket star Imran Khan.
Mussrat Shaheen, a former actress known for raunchy dance steps, has added some spice to the race in NA-24, a voting district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province. She has showered her opponent, Jamiat-e Ulema Islam leader Maulana Fazlur Rehmana, with verbal barbs
. But Shaheen has little chance of defeating the bearded cleric.
In the eastern Punjab Province, one of the most closely fought contests is in Rawalpindi's NA-56 voting district. There Imran Khan, who is running in multiple races, is pitted against an established local politician, pharmaceuticals businessman Hanif Abassi of the PML-N. The race is particularly interesting because security in the garrison city has fostered a vibrant campaign.
Across the country an estimated 500,000 "third-gender" citizens will be participating as voters and candidates. The development comes after a 2011 Supreme Court ruling paved the way for the separate classification of "third gender," which can include hermaphrodites, transsexuals, and transvestites.
Overall, Punjab Province appears to be the one to watch. Journalist Zahid Hussain says the shape of the future government will be determined in Punjab, which accounts for more than half of the National Assembly's seats.
Punjab "has become the major battleground between the Pakistan Muslim League-N and the Pakistan Movement for Justice. The PPP has sunk quite low now in this region. So there is going to be a major contest between these two parties in this region," Hussain says.
An opinion poll conducted by Gallup Pakistan in March puts conservative former Prime Minister Sharif's PML-N in the lead, with some 39 percent of the likely voters supporting it.
Its traditional rival, the PPP, appears to be a distant second. It is predicted to take only 14 percent of the vote, in large part due to its dismal record during the past five years.
Political scientist Waseem says the PML-N will probably grab close to 100 parliamentary seats, followed by the PPP, which will lose its majority but will cling to constituencies in its traditional strongholds.
Imran Khan's PTI has earned the wild-card label due to its rise in popularity. Gallup predicts that 7 percent of voters will support the Justice Movement.
Waseem sees Khan's party finishing a distant third, with 20 to 40 seats. He predicts that parties such as the JUI, MQM, and ANP will reaffirm their status as important blocs in both the national and provincial parliaments.
"There is going to be a mosaic of political parties -- a kind of a hung parliament in a classical way, and then they will start making coalitions," he says. "Probably the leading party will be able to pull the strings [together]."