In the first 19 days of campaigning over 60 people, candidates, activists and bystanders were killed and about 200 injured by armed groups, notably the Pakistani Taliban, who declared them part of an “un-Islamic democratic system which only serves the interests of infidels and enemies of Islam”.
Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) spokesperson Ehsanullah Ehsan said they would be targeting secular parties that sat in the outgoing government, warning the public to stay away from meetings organised by Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), and the Awami National Party (ANP).
They were as good as their word, killing 11 at an ANP meeting in Karachi and a seven-year-old boy who was standing near an ANP convoy in the north-west, for instance, bombing PPP and MQM offices and shooting dead independent candidate Abdul Fateh Magsi in Balochistan on 30 April.
The violence may, as the armed groups hope, frighten people off attending election rallies and even going to vote.
Musharraf, for his part, returned to what he hoped would be a grateful nation after four years in self-imposed exile, only to find himself before the courts.
Unimpressed bu his hubris, the judges placed him under house arrest and banned him from standing for elected position for life.
The general appears to have believed that Pakistanis, disillusioned by the chaotic experience of President Asif Ali Zardari’s government, would be looking back nostalgically at the eight years of his “enlightened moderation”.
That certainly wasn’t the case so far as the courts were concerned – they overruled the only polling officer prepared to accept him as a candidate, claiming that he had violated the constitution and confined him to his home as he awaits for his alleged part in the 2007 assassination of PPP leader Benazir Bhutto.
Nor did his tribulations inspire much popular protest, although his successor at the head of the army, General Ashfaq Kayani, showed a little sympathy, declaring that “retribution” was not enough to put an end to “this game of hide-and-seek between democracy and dictatorship”.
The army will “wholeheartedly assist and support in the conduct of free, fair and peaceful elections”, Kayani said Wednesday, an unremarkable statement in many countries but a historic one in Pakistan, where the army has seized power four times in just 65 years of existence.
Indeed, if all goes more or less as planned, this election will be historic, being the first time that a civilian government hands over to another civilian government after serving its entire term.
That doesn’t mean all is well, however. Pakistan faces many challenges:
- Political violence: Decades of war in neighbouring Afghanistan have infected Pakistan. Al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban inspired the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan to launch war against Pakistan’s government, taking control of the Swat valley in 2009, before being cleared out by an army offensive, and remaining active throughout the country. The Afghan Taliban and other groups are still holed up in the semi-autonomus tribal areas.
- Sectarian violence and religious persecution: Minority groups – Shia-Muslim, Ahmadi and Christians - "faced unprecedented insecurity and persecution in the country” in 2011-2012, New York-based Human Rights Watch claims. Sunni militias, especially Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan and TTP, launch regular attacks on Shia, leading to reprisals. The Ahmadi are forbidden to describe themselves as Muslims and their mosques have been attacked. Christians have been threatened with the death penalty in blasphemy cases and suffer systematic discrimination. Minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti was murdered, as was Punjab governor Salman Taseer who opposed the blasphemy law.
- Energy crisis: Power cuts for as long as 16 hours, disrupting industry and home life, have pushed the country’s energy crisis to the top of the election issues list. Not enough electricity is produced and the government doesn’t pay power companies for all that it consumes. In 2011-12 power cuts reduced GDP by three to four per cent in 2010-11, according to the government Planning Commission.
- Corruption: Graft spreads from top to bottom of the government and the police. Last year three retired generals were accused of involvement in the "NLC scam", involving fake loans, British MPs threatened to cap aid to Pakistan when i twas revealed that on 0.57 per cent of Pakistanis paid income tax, with most of the rich and 69 per cent of MPs paying no tax at all. Corruption, tax evasion and bad governnance cost the country at least Rs8.5 trillion (71 billion euros), according to anti-graft campaign Transparency International.
- Poverty: About 60 per cent of the population lives on under two dollars a day, according to the Human Development Index. Although that proportion is lower than in India or Bangladesh, but a decline in poverty in the 1970s and 1980s was reversed in the 1990s. Women suffer particularly badly and child mortality at 88 per 1,000 is above the south Asian average. The top 10 per cent of the population receive 27.6 per cent of income.
- Judicial activism: Under General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s judges challenged military rule, leading to Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry suspension, which in turn led to boisterous protests by lawyers. That new assertiveness has carried on under Zardari, leading to prime ministerial resignations and fears of judge-backed military coups. This election has seen the revival of a law, introduced by military ruler Zia ul-Haq, that a candidate must prove he or she is a "good Muslim of integrity and honesty", leading to returning officers barring many candidates, including Musharraf.