Pakistan's parliamentary elections are historic in that they mark the country's first democratic transition of power. But the lead-up to the May 11 vote also exposed some worrying democratic shortcomings.
Islamic militants left their bloody mark on the elections through numerous bombings and assassinations intended to keep secular parties from campaigning. More than 100 people, including three election candidates, were killed in the violence credited mostly to the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan.
Many candidates from across the political spectrum relied on nationalist rhetoric to motivate voters, and enmity toward neighboring states and the West was on full display. Political mudslinging exposed a venomous political environment.
The campaign has led to concerns about what kind of government could emerge, and questions about how it will deal with pressing domestic issues and the regional uncertainty that will accompany the Western withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014.
Sharif vs. Khan?
On the eve of the vote, two political camps appeared poised to expand their influence in the 342-seat parliament. Those gains would come at the expense of the secular governing alliance led by President Asif Ali Zardani's Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), which ruled parliament for the past five years.
Public-opinion polls taken late in the campaign showed the nationalist parties Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan Tehrik-e Insaf (Pakistan Movement for Justice, PTI) gaining enough seats to be a leading voice in a ruling coalition.
Should that happen, the two parties' leaders -- former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from the PML-N and former cricket star Imran Khan of the PTI -- would be the front-runners to be elected prime minister by the new parliament.
Both men have been critical of the ongoing U.S.-led fight against Islamic militancy in the region and how it plays out on Pakistani soil.
In a May 7 interview, Sharif said he would end
Pakistan's participation in the war on terror. "Yes, we have to...if we [want] to have peace in this country and peace elsewhere in the world," he told a BBC reporter while on the campaign trail.
Khan, meanwhile, has been a vocal opponent of CIA drone strikes against Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants in Pakistan's western tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan.
The strikes kill civilians, Khan says, which fans violence and support for extremists. "The drones are causing hatred against America," he recently told journalist Susanne Koelbl
. "[This] hatred feeds into militants who then become heroes of fighting this American Goliath."
The two parties, along with others, have also taken advantage of the perception that the previous PPP-led government was corrupt and inefficient, and have vowed to tackle unemployment and inflation.
Vote Held Hostage By Militants
Secular parties, meanwhile, have been forced to abandon mass rallies in the face of violence and have run muted, door-to-door campaigns.
In part due to the influence that once-marginal Islamist militants have had on the campaign, the entire political spectrum has shifted to the right, says Aysha Siddiqa, an Islamabad-based political commentator.
Siddiqa notes that Islamists stand to have a greater voice in the future parliament, in part as a result of the PML-N's electoral alliance with extremist parties representing Sunni sectarian organizations.
She also points out that Pakistan's powerful military has the final say in national-security and foreign-policy decisions. This means that, despite the jingoistic campaign rhetoric, it is the security establishment that will determine the country's course of action.
On the counterterrorism front, she sees the military and other bodies taking a wait-and-see approach on the expected withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan. That leaves room, until the pullout is completed as expected by the end of 2014, for militants in Pakistan to continue to destabilize domestic and regional security.
"Many jihadist organizations are talking about a civil war in Afghanistan. There is some talk about many of the Afghan Taliban and international jihadists moving back into Afghanistan [after the Western withdrawal]," Siddiqa says. "If this happens it will create a short-term relief [from attacks in Pakistan] but in the medium to long term, as long as these organizations exist, we will remain unstable along with Afghanistan."
New Pakistan Same As The Old?
During the campaign, Khan and other politicians promised voters a new Pakistan, but ultimately the security question and political reality will reinforce the status quo. There is even the very real possibility that the PPP, even if it were to lose seats, could cobble together a ruling coalition.
WATCH: RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal asked voters in Mingora, Swat district, why the upcoming poll is important to them. Although the campaign has been marred by violence, some voters expressed cautious optimism that the election could bring change.
Siddiqa predicts that the elections will deliver a split mandate, resulting in a hung parliament and extended coalition talks among newly elected parliament deputies.
"Look, there will be no sweeping changes because the new Pakistan will be the same as the old Pakistan. If no political party manages to gain a clear majority, then how can anybody go ahead with changing policies?" she says. "Independents are likely to win some 30 to 40 seats, which mean that there will be a lot of horse-trading to forge a coalition government. Corruption in politics is likely to continue. How could we call this real change?"
Ghazi Salahuddin, a Karachi-based journalist, sees no immediate end to the Taliban violence that has overshadowed the campaign. He predicts that regardless of who wins the vote, fighting terrorism will be a top domestic priority.
"After the elections politicians will come back into the world of reality. Then they will be forced to deal with these issues. They have to look into how to respond to what the Taliban are doing. How to deal with the drone strikes," Salahuddin says. "Overall, the situation will remain extremely worrying."
Salahuddin says that the threat of Taliban violence has proliferated to a level that no future government can ignore. "The incoming government has to deal with it. They cannot postpone it," he says.