A policeman carry election banner of Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf party tied to hot air balloons in Rajouri.
Pakistan stands at the cliff-edge of Saturday’s general elections with a fear of the unknown.
With terrorist attacks almost every day and the possibility of more on poll day, the make-or-break moment for Pakistan’s democratic future is shrouded in morbidity.
Conspiracy theories abound as usual. To dispel the notion that the military establishment wants to derail democracy, army chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani recently reassured the nation that elections would be held on May 11.
“We mustn’t harbour suspicion or misgivings about it. This is a golden opportunity to usher in an era of true democratic values. It is not merely retribution but awareness and participation of the masses that can end this game of hide-and-seek between democracy and dictatorship,” he said.
Speaking at an event marking Youm-e-Shuhada (Martyrs' Day) on April 30, the General said: "If we succeed in rising above all ethnic, linguistic and sectarian biases to vote solely on the basis of honesty, sincerity, merit and competence, there would be no reason to fear dictatorship."
Coming from the chief of the same institution that has ousted civilian governments in the past and is accused of hatching conspiracies to derail the democratic setup in Pakistan, it is interesting on many levels.
The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), meanwhile, has kept its promise of attacking the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), the Awami National Party (ANP) and Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) — three liberal and progressive political parties which were coalition partners in the previous government. Khaled Ahmed, consulting editor of Newsweek Pakistan, says: "Taliban are targeting secular parties to better negotiate their ideology with the rest. But the rightwing parties will be wrong to negotiate. Taliban are moving inexorably to the realisation of their ideology which they will implement after a takeover."
Two days before the elections, former prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani’s son Ali Haider Gilani was kidnapped from his hometown, Multan, in daylight. It shows how vulnerable the PPP and other political parties are during these elections.
ANP's Bushra Gohar says the TTP wants to influence the elections by preventing the liberal parties from getting into parliament. "It is blatant pre-poll rigging with the state as a silent spectator. It seems a decision has already been made about what the results of the elections will be. In my opinion it is all closely linked to the 2014 US withdrawal. A serious effort is still underway to get the elections postponed indefinitely but if that scheme doesn't materialize. Then the plan is to keep the liberal anti-Taliban parties out and create greater space for the pro-Taliban parties."
"The ANP has been the worst sufferer of election-related violence by the TTP. The MQM has also suffered as has the PPP. The only province where you see large political rallies are in the Punjab where the centre-right parties - the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf's (PTI) political activities are in full swing. The elimination of liberal political figures is the process of creeping Islamisation and permanent militarisation of Pakistan, which began during Zia ul-Haq's military dictatorship," says former PPP parliamentarian Farahnaz Ispahani.
This election was supposed to be a ray of hope for Pakistan's struggling democratic process but it has instead turned into an anti-Taliban versus pro-Taliban fight. The battle in Punjab is between PML-N and PTI, parties with rightwing ideology.
PML-N's connections with the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), the official name of the banned terrorist organisation Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), are no secret. PML-N has also given a party ticket to former SSP leader Sardar Ebad Dogar, the man who announced head money on late Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer.
In a recent interview, Imran Khan said Benazir Bhutto was not killed by the Taliban. He also believes that the Taliban are a misguided lot who will put down their arms once the US-led NATO forces withdraw from Afghanistan and Pakistan is no more their partner in the war on terror. Imran's other ambitious project is to end corruption in 90 days.
While the PML-N is still said to be leading the race, recent surveys show that the PML-N and PTI are going to have a close fight in Punjab, where PPP may not do too well. With Imran's recent accident at a rally, many think the sympathy wave could lead to surprising results. With such a divided electorate, a hung parliament seems likely. It goes in the military establishment's favour that no political party is likely to get a clear majority. In that case, Pakistan's political process could be in trouble all over again by the yearend.