ISLAMABAD — Pakistan is holding landmark elections Saturday, marking the first time in this country’s volatile history that a civilian government transfers power to another via the ballot box. Despite threats and violence, many voters are determined to use their votes to bring about change to their country.
The nationwide poll for a new national assembly and government leadership follows the bloodiest election campaign in Pakistan’s history. For weeks, militants and extremists bombed, shot at, killed, kidnapped and threatened political candidates and supporters in an attempt to derail a vote they call un-Islamic.
Despite the violence, student leader Muneer Jalib Baloch said people in Quetta are determined use the ballot to end the province’s separatist militancy.
“We don’t want the politics of guns, we can’t say if supporters of militancy will increase or decrease," he noted, " but our political efforts for the May 11 elections have received a great response because people have lost their loved ones. These issues will be resolved by the new government with our representatives there, God willing.”
The election front runner is Nawaz Sharif, 64, a veteran politician who served twice as prime minister and heads the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party.
"God willing, when your fate changes, then the destiny of the nation will also change," Sharif told supporters. "Young men, you are the architects of the future. The green flag of Pakistan is in your hands. Do not let it bend down."
Sharif is critical of Pakistan’s powerful military. He has vowed to root out corruption and favors peace talks with the Pakistan Taliban.
Running a close second is the party of cricket star turned politician, Imran Khan, who has broad support among youth and those fed up with the main political parties from the last government.
"I was given a chance by God to serve my nation," Khan told voters. " Now it's your turn to change your life. On the 11th think only about the country. If you want to change your and your children's fate you have to fight. You have to decide whether you want to go on like this or whether you want to make a new Pakistan."
Khan’s fall from a makeshift elevated stage during a political rally and his speech to the nation from his hospital bed has rallied many undecided voters to his side.
Analyst Muddassir Rizvi said despite support for figures like Sharif and Khan, political divisions in Pakistan make it unlikely that any one party will win a majority in the national assembly.
“A split parliament will mean a long, dragged out transition of power; a party who is expecting more seats getting less seats may yield post-election incidents that may turn violent - we cannot predict,” Rizvi said.
Whatever government comes out of these elections, it will have an uphill battle to meet the people’s expectations for an end to Pakistan’s considerable economic, social, and militant problems.