On May 11, Pakistan will hold national elections to to elect members of the country’s national assembly and four provincial assemblies. After decades of military rule and political instability, this will be the first time in the country's history that a civilian government will transfer power through the ballot box.
Here are brief profiles of several candidates and influential politicians representing several political parties in the upcoming election.
Nawaz Sharif, 64, was born in Lahore, the capital of Punjab province. Sixty percent of Pakistanis live in the province, which is the country’s political power base. Sharif has twice served as prime minister and heads the second largest political party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). Under his leadership in May 1998, Pakistan conducted nuclear tests days after rival India exploded its own devices.
In October 1999, Sharif was dislodged from power by a bloodless coup staged by his hand-picked army chief, General Pervez Musharraf. Sharif was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment that was later commuted to exile in Saudi Arabia under a deal brokered by the Saudi royal family. Sharif came back to Pakistan in November 2007 to resume political activities. He is contesting two seats of the legislative National Assembly and recent public opinion surveys indicate his PML-N is the frontrunner in the upcoming national polls.
When he launched his party manifesto in mid-April, Sharif vowed to turn Pakistan into an “Asian Tiger” with new infrastructure and a government with “zero tolerance" for corruption. He said “if a country is economically strong, it is able to solve all the problems, whether law and order or political extremism."
Sharif is a conservative Muslim who rose to national prominence with the support of the army in the mid 1980s and has been known as a pro-army politician. But he is now among the top critics of the army establishment and his pro-business party is trying to present itself as a more moderate conservative force.
He has consistently expressed a desire to improve diplomatic ties with rival India and supports restricting the military’s role in Pakistan’s domestic politics. He favors peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban to end a deadly militancy that has plagued Pakistan for many years. Sharif’s support base consists of right-wing forces, the business community, the commercial and professional middle class and Pakistani youth.
Cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan, 59, is an Oxford graduate. He led Pakistan’s team to win the cricket World Cup in 1992 for the first and only time. His career made him one of the world’s most admired cricketers.
Khan used his fame to embark on a fundraising campaign for a cancer hospital he built in his native city, Lahore, in 1994 in the memory of his mother. The state-of-the-art hospital offers free of charge treatment to cancer patients of poverty-stricken families.
As cricket superstar, he was also known for his “playboy” lifestyle and was married to British heiress Jemima Khan, until their divorce in 2004.
Following the divorce, Khan underwent a transformation and is now seen by many as a conservative Muslim. He formed his political party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Pakistan’s Movement for Justice) or PTI, in 1996. After struggling for more than 15 years to grow the party beyond its tiny base, Khan has in recent months emerged as a serious political contender, leading many to believe he could become Pakistan’s next prime minister.
The PTI chief is a harsh critic of Pakistan’s alliance with the United States. Although Washington is Islamabad’s biggest aid donor, Khan says if elected as prime minister, he would end anti-terrorism cooperation, stop American drone strikes on Pakistani territory and restore the country’s financial sovereignty by reducing reliance on Western donors.
Khan is contesting four constituency districts of the National Assembly. The PTI’s massive public rallies in recent months appear to draw support from two main groups: urban women and youth who constitute more than 60 percent of the national electorate.
The chairman of the former ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, is not running in the upcoming elections because he is still a few months away from his 25th birthday, the minimum age to run as a candidate. He is the only son of slain former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and President Asif Ali Zardari, who is barred by the constitution from running in the election.
An Oxford graduate, young Bilawal was made head of the PPP after his mother’s assassination while campaigning ahead of Pakistan’s last national elections in 2007.
Although he is not running for office, he is expected to be the public face of the PPP campaign because of his national recognition. However, so far Bilawal is relying on video messages for party workers and voters because of security concerns.
Under his father’s leadership, the ruling PPP over the past five years was heavily criticized for not being able to address basic issues, such as worsening power cuts and a national energy crisis, as well as runaway inflation. Many blame policies of the PPP-led government for worsening corruption, the feeble national economy and a rise in extremism. Relations between Pakistan and India, particularly bilateral trade, saw significant improvement during its tenure.
The PPP-led coalition government became the first in Pakistan to have completed a full five-year term. But the compromises and alliances that the party made to retain power upset some party stalwarts and undermined its popularity. The party now is struggling to win over voters in the national polls, but it is still expected to dominate in its traditional power base in southern Sindh province.
Chaudhry Pervez Elahi
A central leader of the Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-i-Azam) or PML-Q, Chaudhry Pervez Elahi has served as the chief minister of Punjab province.
The PML-Q was founded in 2000 and enjoyed the support of former military ruler Pervez Musharraf after he took power in a coup in 1999. The party had a large presence in the National Assembly, in Punjab and in the Baluchistan provincial assembly after the 2008 elections. However, since Musharraf left office, the PML-Q has lost political clout and is no longer a rival to the other mainstream political parties. The party is currently headed by Senator Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, borther-in-law of Elahi, running for a National Assembly seat.
Maulana Fazlur Rehman
A religious scholar and political leader, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, 59, heads the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam or JUI-F party that draws support from followers of the Deobandi school of Sunni Islam.
Rehman has been elected to Pakistani parliament four times since 1988. He is best known for espousing the imposition of Sharia or Islamic law in Pakistan, but has formed critical political alliances even with secular parties like the Pakistan Peoples Party to remain close to the ruling elite.
Rehman enjoyed close contacts with the Taliban when it took control in neighboring Afghanistan in late 1990s. Taliban members studied in some of the religious seminaries or madrassas run by JUI-F. His party joined the ruling coalition headed by Benazir Bhutto after her election in 1988. He also served as the parliament’s committee on foreign affairs chairmen in Bhutto’s second term as prime minister in early 1990s.
The JUI-F chief strongly opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 and led major protest rallies across the country to condemn Pakistani rulers for becoming part of the war against the Taliban. However, in recent years he has distanced his party somewhat from the Taliban. In 2011, he narrowly survived back-to-back assassination attempts. Rehman is running for two National Assembly seats from northwestern Tank and Dera Ismail Khan regions.
Asfandyar Wali Khan
A well-known Pashtun politician, Asfandyar Wali Khan is the current president of the Awami National Party (ANP). The party formed a coalition government in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and was a junior member of the PPP-led collation at the center. The ANP also remained part of the provincial government in southern Sindh province for most of the time.
Born in February 1949, Khan hails from a political family. He was also chairman of the National Assembly (lower house of parliament) committee on foreign affairs.
The ANP is viewed as a left-of-center, secular party that has championed policies based on Pasthun identity. Under his leadership, the secular ANP first supported peace talks with Pakistani Taliban extremists. After the peace talks failed, Khan supported major military offensives to uproot militant bases in and around his home province, which borders Afghanistan.
Militants in the region responded by killing more than 800 party workers over the past five years. Khan himself survived an assassination attempt in 2008. The violence has continued during this year’s campaign season, restricting ANP rallies to smaller, indoor gatherings.
Under the ANP leadership, the provincial administration in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was criticized for its inability to stimulate the economy and root out corruption. While the party has traditionally performed well in its northwest political strongholds, it is being challenged this year by the Tehreek-e-Insaf party of cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan.
Asfandyar Wali Khan is running for a National Assembly seat from his political stronghold, Charsada.
Head of the right-wing political party, Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), Munawar Hassan, was born in 1941. He has led the party ever since winning intra-party polls in 2009. Hassan is considered by many as an ideological hardliner and briefly served as a parliamentarian in 1977 before the military dictator Ziaul Haq imposed martial law.
His party boycotted the 2008 elections and is staunchly against Pakistan’s alliance with Washington and participation in the war on terrorism. Hassan’s party opposes normal bilateral trade and travel links with rival India until they embark on serious talks regarding the disputed Kashmir region.
He is leading his party's campaign but is not running as a candidate.
Founder and the chief of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement or MQM political party, Altaf Hussain has been living in London since 1992 and is not contesting in the upcoming elections. His party is a strong player in urban Sindh, including the provincial capital, Karachi. The ethnic-based MQM is mainly a regional force and claims to be a representative of the Urdu-speaking immigrants from India, mostly settled in urban centers of the southwestern Pakistani province.
Hussain, 60, remains an icon for thousands of MQM followers and office holders. The party is seen as a liberal and progressive force that was part of the governing coalition with the PPP in the provincial and national assemblies.
The MQM’s crucial support played an important role in helping the government complete its full five-year term for the first time in Pakistan’s troubled history. As usual, Hussain is spearheading the party’s election campaign through his speeches delivered from exile to MQM supporters.
The MQM has always dominated affairs in Karachi, the hub of Pakistan’s economy, but the party has been accused of using violent tactics to maintain its political hold. The rival ethnic Pashtun party, Awami National Party or ANP, has lately increased its influence in the city, posing a serious challenge to MQM’s power base. Analysts say their political struggle over Karachi has turned into a bloody turf war that is partly responsible for violence killing thousands of people in the city in recent years.