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What Is at Stake in Pakistan’s Election?


Wedged between Afghanistan, where an American-led war has stretched on for 17 years, and its historic rival India, Pakistan is always at risk of a conflagration. It has served both as a crucial base for American forces fighting in Afghanistan and as a powerful obstacle to those same troops, secretly offering aid and safe harbor to militant groups, including the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

An Economic Crisis

But Pakistan’s problems are not just about regional security — they are also about its ability to provide opportunity for its own people, including a growing class of young and educated Pakistanis. Despite its size and potential, the country’s economy has lagged, and it faces persistent problems with corruption and environmental stress.

As tensions with the United States and other Western countries have intensified — particularly over accusations that Pakistan is not doing enough to curb the Afghan Taliban and other militant groups — Pakistan has increasingly turned to China for aid and support. But that pivot has come with its own problems, including concern over the quickly increasing amount of debt Pakistan is racking up with China.

Who Is Running?

There are 122 parties fielding candidates in the election. They all promise jobs, social welfare and housing plans. But the overarching theme of the election has become the confrontation between the military and the governing party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, or P.M.L.-N. The party accuses the military of intimidating some of its leading figures into defecting to other blocs, and of unfairly supporting a rival candidate, Imran Khan.

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Mr. Khan at a campaign rally in Karachi. He promises to bring “change” to Pakistani voters who are tired of the other leading parties.

Credit
Shakil Adil/Associated Press

Imran Khan

Mr. Khan, 65, is a former international cricket star who has promised an alternative to the corruption and the entrenched political dynasties voters associate with the other leading parties. His rivals attribute his surge in the polls to a back-room deal struck with the military, which they claim has worked to undermine the election. Mr. Khan has denied that accusation, chalking up the accusations of meddling to sour grapes.

Mr. Khan, whose success on the cricket pitch made him a household name, has held a seat in the National Assembly for five years but has never run a government. A large number of independent candidates are expected to join his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or P.T.I., if it wins.

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Shehbaz Sharif, center, president of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, at a campaign rally in Punjab Province on Thursday. He hopes to follow in his brother’s footsteps as prime minister.

Credit
Aamir Qureshi/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Shehbaz Sharif

Nawaz Sharif, a three-time prime minister, was ousted last year by the country’s Supreme Court. He was convicted of corruption and is now in prison after returning from London this month to be arrested. Mr. Sharif says those court decisions were made under pressure from the military, which opposed his attempts as prime minister to reassert control over the country’s defense and foreign policy.

But his family remains politically powerful. His younger brother, Shehbaz Sharif, 66, is the current president of the P.M.L.-N. and hopes to lead the country. Until recently, he was the chief minister of Punjab, the most populous and prosperous of the country’s four provinces and the party’s biggest source of support.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari

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Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party, at a campaign rally in Karachi. He is the son of a former prime minister and a former president.

Credit
Akhtar Soomro/Reuters

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, 29, is the scion of one of Pakistan’s most illustrious and star-crossed dynasties. He is the son and grandson of two former prime ministers, Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated, and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who was executed. His father, former President Asif Ali Zardari, is considered to wield the real power in the left-leaning Pakistan Peoples Party.

The younger Mr. Zardari is not expected to win, but he could potentially play kingmaker if neither Mr. Khan nor Mr. Sharif receives enough votes to form a government.

Will Extremists Affect the Outcome?

Pakistan was recently added to the Financial Action Task Force’s “gray list” of state sponsors of terrorism, increasing pressure on the country to crack down on extremist groups. At nearly the same time, however, the country’s electoral commission was paving the way for more candidates with extremist ties to run for office.

Among the parties seeking seats on Wednesday are Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek, the reconstituted version of a party that officials had previously banned, and Tehreek Labbaik Pakistan, which backs the country’s contentious blasphemy laws.

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