The new leader has to navigate complex ties with the US and China, rising terrorism and tense relations with neighbours including India, Afghanistan and Iran. The Sharifs or Bhutto will likely be friendlier to the US than Khan, who drew closer to China during his time as prime minister and accused Washington of conspiring with Pakistan’s powerful military generals to oust him in April 2022.
Whoever wins will also need to work with the generals, who have ruled directly or behind the scenes for much of the country’s modern history. The army, which has a strong influence over foreign policy, security and – increasingly – the economy, is widely seen by analysts as favouring Nawaz Sharif.
“Whoever comes to power will not have much role in the country’s foreign policy,” said Shaista Tabassum, dean of arts faculty and the former head of the international relations department at the University of Karachi. “Their focus will only be on domestic policies.”
Top business leaders and political commentators say the most likely election outcome is a hung parliament and a coalition government. There are 266 directly contested seats up for grabs in the National Assembly, the lower house, meaning a party or coalition would need 134 seats to form a majority. Any party that wins about 90 seats would be in the driving seat to begin negotiations to head a government, analysts say.
A Gallup Pakistan survey published in January showed Nawaz Sharif gaining ground on Khan, who received three new jail sentences recently. Sharif returned from exile last year under a deal that analysts said was probably approved by the military. He pledges to boost infrastructure spending and cut inflation, which is running at the fastest pace in Asia.
Bhutto is banking on his relative youth and family history to draw voters in a country where people aged 18 to 35 account for more than 40 per cent of the electorate. Both his mother, Benazir Bhutto, and grandfather, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, served as prime minister. Benazir was assassinated while Zulfikar was executed after a military coup.
Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf is backing more than 200 independent candidates after the authorities prevented the party from fielding them under its name and took away its coveted cricket bat symbol, which had helped illiterate voters choose them in the past. It’s unclear what will happen if they win a large number of seats.
Whoever comes to power will be keenly aware that they can also fall out of favour with a military that analysts say is increasingly assertive behind the scenes. No prime minister has ever completed a full five-year term in Pakistan’s 77-year history.
“All the last prime ministers thought they were in charge until they got kicked out,” said Ahmad Yunas Samad, a professor of political science at Lahore University of Management Sciences.
Two bombings on the eve of the election targeted campaign offices of a political party and an independent candidate. At least 30 people and more than two dozen wounded, officials said.
The first attack happened in Pashin, the second in Qilla Saifullah town, both in Baluchistan province.
The second bombing at the office of politician Fazlur Rehman’s Jamiat Ulema Islam party killed at least 12 people, local authorities said.
JUI is one of the leading radical Islamist parties and is known for backing the Afghan Taliban. JUI’s religious schools are spread across the country, especially in the north-west and Baluchistan bordering Afghanistan.
Many of Afghanistan’s Taliban leaders studied at Islamic seminaries operated by JUI, yet Rehman and his party leaders in recent years have been attacked by the Islamic State group and other militants.
Rehman and scores of candidates from his party are contesting the elections from various parts of Pakistan.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attacks, which came a day before Pakistan holds parliamentary elections.
Caretaker Prime Minister Anwaarul-Haq-Kakar denounced the bombings, and conveyed his condolences to the families of those who died. He vowed that “every attempt to sabotage the law and order situation will be thwarted” and said the government is committed to holding elections in peace.
The provincial government spokesperson, announced a three-day mourning period but said elections will go ahead as planned.
The bombings came despite the deployment of tens of thousands of police and paramilitary forces across Pakistan to ensure peace following a recent surge in militant attacks in the country, especially in Baluchistan.
The outlawed Baluchistan Liberation Army has been behind multiple attacks on security forces in Baluchistan bordering Afghanistan and Iran. On January 30, a separatist Baluchistan Liberation Army group attacked security facilities in Baluchistan’s Mach district, killing six people.
In recent years, Pakistan has struggled to rein in surging militancy, especially in the former stronghold of Pakistan Taliban. Militants have a presence in Baluchistan, and have targeted civilians.
The gas-rich Baluchistan province at the border of Afghanistan and Iran has been the scene of a low-level insurgency by Baluch nationalists for more than two decades. Baluch nationalists initially wanted a share of the provincial resources, but later they initiated an insurgency for independence.
Pakistani Taliban and other militant groups also have a strong presence in the province.
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