More than 100 million registered voters will cast their ballots across Pakistan on Wednesday in a nail biting end to an intense general election process that has been marred by claims of rigging and terrorism.
The ballots will be cast for 272 general seats of the lower house -- also known as the National Assembly -- and 577 general seats of the country’s four provincial assemblies.
Around 50 political and religious parties are taking part in the elections, which have been marred by allegations of “manipulation” and “engineering”; the main contest is expected to be between three mainstream political parties and a five-party religious alliance.
The fieriest part of the race is expected to be between the two right-wing parties -- the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) of three-time Premier Nawaz Sharif, who is currently in jail following a corruption case verdict against him, and the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) led by former cricket star Imran Khan.
Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) of slain prime minister Benazir Bhutto, and religious alliance , Muttehida majlis Amal (MMA) are also in the run.
According to surveys held by Pakistani think tanks, a neck-to-neck contest is expected between the PML-N and the PTI.
In Punjab, the country’s most populous province and political power base, PML-N stands ahead of PTI with 51 percent votes; however, PTI, which enjoys the support of 31 percent votes, is quickly gaining ground, the surveys conducted by think tanks, Gallup Pakistan and Pulse, revealed.
In northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, PTI appears to be the most preferred choice with 57 percent votes followed by the religious parties’ alliance, MMA, and the PML-N, the surveys said.
Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), led by slain former Premier Benazir Bhutto’s widower and son, enjoys the support of 44 percent votes in southern Sindh province, whereas in southwestern Balochistan, there is a mixed support for PPP, MMA and the PTI, it added.
The Pakistani parliament consists of the two houses known as the National Assembly (lower house) and the Senate (upper house).
The National Assembly members are elected through direct franchise for five years, whereas senators are elected by National Assembly members for a period of six years.
The National Assembly has 342 seats, of which 272 are filled through direct elections while 60 seats are reserved for women and 10 for religious minorities. Reserved seats are later allotted to parties as per their number of general seats.
According to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), around 12,027 candidates are in the run for the national and provincial assembly seats. Of them, 3,631 candidates will contest for the general seats of National Assembly while 8,396 are running for general seats of the four provincial assemblies.
The PML-N is one of the several breakaway groups of Pakistan’s founding party established in 1906 before partition.
Led by the three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, it was founded in 1993, and since then it has ruled the country three times i.e. 1990 to 1992, 1997 to 1999, and 2013 to 2018.
However, the party could only complete its constitutional five-year term only once between 2013 and 2018.
Nawaz Sharif’s two previous governments were dismissed on corruption charges in 1992 and through a bloodless military coup in 1999, respectively.
Nawaz Sharif, who has been sentenced to 10 years in jail in a corruption case by the country’s top court, has already been disqualified for life and remains barred from holding any public office, including his party’s leadership. He, however, still enjoys a strong grip over his party and currently holds the title of “Quaid” (leader).
Shehbaz Sharif, his younger brother and three-time chief minister of Punjab province, has recently replaced the elder Sharif as party president.
The party, whose election symbol is a lion, has strong roots in Punjab, especially in the industrial part of the province. It has a solid vote bank in parts of KhyberPakhtunkhwa (KP) and Balochistan provinces, but the party is mainly relying on Punjab.
Founded by the country’s former cricket star, Imran Khan in 1996, the PTI emerged as the second-largest party in terms of votes in the 2013 elections. The party not only amassed over 8 million votes -- second after the PML-N -- in 2013 but it also managed to form a provincial government in the KP.
It is set to pose a serious threat to the PML-N in Punjab with many dubbing the party as “favorite” in the forthcoming elections.
PTI, whose election symbol is a cricket bat, enjoys support in Punjab, KP-FATA and even in Karachi that makes it the only party having a national posture.
Many believe the upcoming elections are a one-to-one contest between the two right-wing parties -- PML-N and PTI -- in Punjab.
The PPP has ruled Pakistan more than any other party since 1970. Founded by former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1967, the party gained power just three years after its inception in 1970.
Bhutto’s government was toppled by the then army chief Gen. Zia-ul-Haq in a bloodless coup on the charge of rigging in 1977 elections. He was later hanged in a murder case in 1979.
His charismatic daughter and the first female prime minister of the Muslim world -- Benazir Bhutto -- gained power twice in 1988 to 1990, and 1993 to 1996, but both her governments were dismissed before completion of the constitutional term on corruption charges.
Bhutto was assassinated in Rawalpindi city in 2007 during an election rally. Her party, now jointly led by her widower Asif Ali Zardari and son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, came into power in 2008 elections and completed its five-year term in 2013.
However, the former most popular party has now almost completely been wiped out in Punjab, KP and Balochistan provinces amid a series of corruption scandals.
The party still maintains a strong vote bank in Sindh, where it has ruled for two consecutive terms from 2008 to 2018.
It is again viewed as the single-largest party in Sindh though it is facing a strong challenge from PTI, MMA, and a regional conglomerate Grand Democratic Alliance (GDA) in different parts of the province.
The Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) alliance is a combination of five religious parties belonging to all major Sunni and Shia schools of thought in Pakistan. The parties included Jamat-e-Islami, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan, Tehrik-e-Islami and Jamiat Ahl-e-Hadit.
Founded in 2002, The MMA had surprised political pundits by emerging as the third-largest group in the National Assembly, and the majority party in KP and Balochistan provinces in 2002 general elections.
The alliance, however, remained dormant for a decade due to differences between the two major components -- Jamat-e-Islami and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam. Poor performances of the two parties forced them to revive the alliance earlier this year.
MMA has encouraging prospects in KP, Balochistan and Karachi. The alliance enjoys little support in Punjab.
Two newly-formed religious groups -- Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) and Milli Muslim League (MML) -- representing Barelvi and Ahl-e-hadith schools of thought respectively have made inroads in recent by-elections in Punjab.
Analysts believe the two parties are not in a position to cause a major upset against PML-N and PTI but they can still damage the vote bank of the two key parties in several constituencies in Punjab, and of the MMA in KP and Karachi.
Some consider TLP as the third largest party in Punjab in terms of votes.
Left-wing Awami National Party (ANP) and newly-formed Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) are also viewed as vote catchers in parts of KP and Balochistan, respectively.
This is also the first time the Muttahida Qaumi Movement - Pakistan will contest elections from its traditional strongholds of Karachi and Hyderabad without being led by its controversial London-based leader Altaf Hussain. Farooq Sattar has taken reins of party since Hussain’s ouster from MQM.
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