Pakistan set for historic, unpredictable election

Pakistani soldiers took positions in Peshawar on Friday, a day before national elections.
Mohammad Sajjad/Associated Press
Pakistani soldiers took positions in Peshawar on Friday, a day before national elections.

ISLAMABAD — Despite a bloody campaign marred by Taliban attacks, Pakistan is holding historic elections Saturday pitting a former cricket star against a two-time prime minister once exiled by the army and an incumbent blamed for power blackouts and inflation.

The vote marks the first time in Pakistan’s 65-year history that a civilian government has completed its full term and handed over power in democratic elections. Previous governments have been toppled by military coups or sacked by presidents allied with the army.

Deadly violence struck again Friday, with a pair of bombings against election offices in northwest Pakistan that killed three people and a shooting that killed a candidate in the southern city of Karachi. More than 130 people have been killed in the run-up to the vote, mostly secular party candidates and workers. Most attacks have been traced to Taliban militants, who have vowed to disrupt a democratic process they say runs counter to Islam.


The vote is being watched closely by Washington since the United States relies on the nuclear-armed country of 180 million people for help in fighting Islamist militants and negotiating an end to the war in neighboring Afghanistan.

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The rise of former cricket star Imran Khan, who has almost mythical status in Pakistan, has challenged the dominance of the country’s two main political parties, making the outcome of the election very hard to call.

‘‘I think it is the most unpredictable election Pakistan has ever had,’’ said Moeed Yusuf, South Asia adviser at the United States Institute of Peace. ‘‘The two-party dominance has broken down, and now you have a real third force challenging these parties.’’

The election comes at a time of widespread despair in Pakistan, which suffers from weak economic growth, rampant electricity and gas shortages, and a Taliban insurgency.

The bombings that killed three people Friday occurred in Miran Shah, the main town in the North Waziristan tribal area, a major sanctuary for the Pakistani Taliban. The blasts also wounded 15 people, said intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.


The candidate who was gunned down in Karachi, Shakil Ahmed, was running as an independent for the provincial assembly, said police officer Mirza Ahmed Baig.

There is concern that the violence could benefit Islamist parties and those who take a softer line toward the militants, including Khan and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, because they were able to campaign more freely.

After more than a decade in the political wilderness, the Oxford-educated Khan has emerged as a force in the last two years with the simple message of ‘‘change.’’ He has tapped into the frustrations of millions of Pakistanis who believe the traditional politicians have been more interested in enriching themselves than governing.