Former Pakistan cricket star Imran Khan’s party was enjoying a late surge of support yesterday, the eve of a landmark election, raising the prospect of a fragmented parliament that could lead to weeks of haggling to form a coalition government.
The failure of the major parties to capture a commanding lead raises the risk a weak government will emerge, clouding optimism over the first transition between civilian governments in a country that has been ruled by the military for more than half its history.
The party of former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif looks set to win the most seats, returning Sharif to power 14 years after he was ousted in a military coup.
However, Khan could end up holding the balance of power if there is no clear-cut winner. In a sign of his popularity, 35,000 supporters turned up on Thursday at a rally in Islamabad that he did not even attend.
The 60-year-old is in hospital after suffering injuries in a fall from a mechanical lift at a rally this week, which may also win him sympathy votes.
“While Khan was initially handicapped by the lack of party organization and the absence of a formal presence at the provincial level, he managed to overcome these challenges by establishing a network of volunteers who have campaigned frenetically and held massive public rallies in recent weeks,” said Shamila Chaudhary, senior editor at Eurasia Group.
Khan has emerged as a tough challenger to dynastic politicians who have relied heavily on a patronage system to win votes and are often accused of corruption.
Campaigning officially ended at midnight on Thursday, but election-related violence that has killed more than 110 people continued on the eve of the vote.
Five people were killed in bomb attacks on party offices yesterday, one in Quetta, capital of the southwestern province of Baluchistan, and the other in the northwestern city of Peshawar.
The Pakistan Taliban, which regards the elections as un-Islamic, is responsible for attacks that have made this the country’s bloodiest election, and have revealed plans for suicide bombings on polling day.
The militants have mostly targeted the more secular-leaning parties in the outgoing coalition led by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), severely restricting their ability to campaign.
The bombers have largely spared the more conservative parties that have voiced doubts about Pakistan’s participation in the US-led campaign against militancy, including those of both Khan and Sharif.
Pakistanis say they will still vote, despite the bloodshed.
“I will vote for Imran Khan because he is a symbol of change,” said student Waqas Ali. “We have tested other leaders several times but they are useless. I will go to the polling station despite serious threats of terrorism.”