- The Washington Times - Friday, May 10, 2013

Pakistan’s historic national elections on Saturday will likely produce a hung parliament and a government intent on distancing itself from the U.S.

The contest has been dominated by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and former cricket star Imran Khan, whose recent tumble during a campaign event has left him bedridden.

“The wild card is going to be Imran Khan’s [Tehreek-i-Insaf party], which candidate he takes the most votes from,” said William Milam, a former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan who is now a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “[Mr. Khan] gets some sympathy votes these days because he fell off a forklift.”

Saturday’s parliamentary elections will mark the first time in the South Asian nation’s 65-year history that one civilian administration will be succeeded by another democratically elected government.

The ruling Pakistan People’s Party, led by President Asif Ali Zardari, faces a strong anti-incumbency movement that could sweep it from power.

A survey of Pakistanis released this week by the Pew Research Center found that 91 percent of the respondents think their country is on the wrong track and 83 percent have an unfavorable opinion of Mr. Zardari.

Mr. Sharif, who heads the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), and Mr. Khan fared much better in the poll.

Mr. Khan has advocated making peace with the Taliban and withdrawing Pakistan from its alliance with the U.S., and Mr. Sharif has promised to end Pakistan’s role in the U.S.-led war on terror.

The Pew poll found that 49 percent of Pakistanis consider the Taliban a very serious threat to their country and 93 percent say terrorism is a big problem.

The Taliban has threatened candidates it perceives to be liberal and secular. But Mr. Khan’s and Mr. Sharif’s parties have been mostly untouched by the threats because of their more conciliatory positions toward the Taliban and its demands.

Even though the campaigns have been conducted under the cloud of Taliban threats, the candidates have scarcely mentioned the militants.

“The fact that talk about the Taliban hasn’t really come up much on the campaign trail is essentially because the parties that have been spared from the Taliban’s wrath are benefiting,” said Michael Kugelman, senior South Asia associate at the Wilson Center. “If they were to say, ‘The Taliban needs to stop what it is doing,’ that could affect their prospects in the polls, but even more, it could affect their lives and safety.”

Meanwhile, dozens of people have been killed in election related violence since the official launch of campaign season in April.

“Unfortunately, the dramatic increase this past month in electoral violence, and in particular attacks on the candidates and supporters of parties perceived to be ‘secular,’ has now called into question how level the playing field will be, especially in the troubled provinces of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the port city of Karachi,” said Andrew Wilder, director of the U.S. Institute of Peace’s Afghanistan and Pakistan programs.