Pakistan's parliamentary elections on May 11 are important because they will determine the shape of a new national government amid economic uncertainty and growing rifts about the country's future direction.
The elections are remarkable because they will mark the first time an elected parliament has completed its full term and peacefully handed power over to another group of lawmakers since Pakistan was founded in 1947.
They are a source of apprehension because the elections, which will also decide on four provincial administrations, will test the strength of Pakistan's democracy. The country has already endured four military dictatorships in its 66 years of existence.
And they are worth watching because of the sheer enormity of the effort. Some 86 million people out of Pakistan's population of 180 million are expected to participate in the vote, making them the world's fifth-largest elections, according to the country's Election Commission.
Who Is Being Elected?
The Election Commission will soon announce a schedule under which thousands of candidates will be able to contest 272 of the 342 seats in the National Assembly (the lower house of the national parliament) with the remaining seats being reserved for women and religious minorities. There will also be polls to fill 728 seats of the legislatures of Pakistan’s four provinces: Punjab, Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Balochistan.
Pakistan has a first-past-the-post electoral system for national and provincial constituencies. Elected lawmakers elect the country's prime minister and four provincial chief ministers by majority vote, and the winners are then free to form their administrations.
What's At Stake?
The elections are seen as an opportunity for Pakistanis to elect a body of leaders who can restore security, improve the economy, and find sustainable solutions to the country's crippling energy crisis.
Senior Election Commission official Mohammad Afzal has been touting the inclusivity of the exercise and predicts a positive outcome.
"Every voice will be heard,” he said. “Every vote will be counted. God willing, this election will be a good omen for democracy and hope for the future prosperity of Pakistanis. This is not only 'Election 2013.' It is 'Hope 2013.'"
What Are The Main Issues?
Recent polls have indicated that the overall national debate in Pakistan will be dominated by concerns over security, corruption, the future shape of the political system, inflation, and the provision of key services.
But observers say that the constituency-based elections mean that most contests will be fought over regional and provincial issues. The appeal of strong candidates, ideological affiliation, and kinship ties strongly affect voting patterns.
Since the onset of a Taliban and Al-Qaeda-led insurgency in the northwestern tribal areas in 2003 and a separatist Baloch insurgency in 2004, security has emerged as a primary national concern.
The Pakistani Taliban has called on voters to reject democracy. The militant group Tehrek-e Taliban Pakistan has also warned of possible attacks on gatherings organized by secular political parties in the run-up to the polls.
Mohammad Afzal acknowledges that the threats posed by extremist violence are serious. However, he maintains that the Election Commission has the backing of the country's powerful security institutions, which should help with implementing the vote in higher-risk regions.
"I am confident that, with the preparations we have made, we will overcome these security challenges,” he said. “We will be able to provide an atmosphere for all our 86 million voters where they will be able to exercise their democratic rights freely."
Who Are The Key Parties And Leaders?
Competition is growing as Pakistani politicians begin to maneuver for votes. An opinion poll conducted by the Washington-based International Republican Institute in January puts conservative former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N in the lead, with 32 percent of the vote.
He is followed by the Tehreek-e Insaaf (Justice Party), led by former cricket star Imran Khan, with 18 percent. This party is considered to be the wild card in the elections because of a dramatic rise in its popularity over the past two years.
The Pakistan Peoples Party, co-chaired by President Asif Ali Zardari, appears to be running in third place with 14 percent of the vote. The party is expected to take a hammering at the polls because of its dismal performance over the last five years.
Islamist and ethno-nationalist political parties, such as the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, Jamiat Ulam-e Islam, and the Awami National Party are expected to reemerge to form important blocs in parliament and in the provincial governments.
Despite some media hype around the return of former military strongman General Pervez Musharraf, pundits see him as a marginal political player with a small following.
As the campaign kicked off, Pakistani politicians were in frantic discussions in Islamabad about the caretaker administration that will run the country until the elections. Under the unique system, members of the interim government must be jointly decided by the parliamentary majority and the opposition. If they fail to reach an agreement the Election Commission will decide.