New Delhi: Pakistan goes to polls on Wednesday to elect a new civilian government in only the second transfer of power from one civilian administration to another in the seven decades of its history. Polling starts at 8 am and ends at 6pm for 272 general seats of the 342-member National Assembly. In all, 3,459 candidates will contest 272 seats. Another 60 seats are reserved for women while 10 have been kept aside for religious minorities. Here’s a look at the main parties in the fray for Pakistan elections and the implications for India and the region:

The main parties

(1) Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf (PTI) is headed by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan. The Oxford-educated Khan, 65, led an anti-corruption campaign against former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, and the 2018 Pakistan elections is seen as his best shot at power. He is said to hold appeal among young voters disenchanted by Pakistan’s dynastic politics. Khan is widely expected to win the polls, given that the powerful Pakistan army is seen as backing him for the post of prime minister.

Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, who heads the Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf. Photo: AP
Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, who heads the Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf. Photo: AP

(2) Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN), currently headed by Shahbaz Sharif, brother of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who was disqualified from holding public office last year over revelations linking his family to lucrative offshore businesses. He and his daughter Maryam were arrested earlier this month—seen as a attempt by the judiciary and the Pakistan army to keep the two out of the electoral race. Should the PMLN win, Shahbaz Sharif is expected to become the prime minister, given that he has better relations with the Pakistan army, according to media reports.

Shahbaz Sharif, brother of ex-prime minister Nawaz Sharif, and leader of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). Photo: Reuters
Shahbaz Sharif, brother of ex-prime minister Nawaz Sharif, and leader of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). Photo: Reuters

(3) Pakistan’s People’s Party (PPP) headed by former prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, 29. Bilawal is contesting Pakistan elections for the first time in an attempt to rejuvenate the PPP that has lost popular support under the leadership of his father Asif Ali Zardari.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, leader of Pakistan Peoples Party. Photo: AFP
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, leader of Pakistan Peoples Party. Photo: AFP

The rest

A plethora of ultra-Islamist groups have thrown their hat into the 2018 election ring. Their proliferation is seen as an attempt by the Pakistan army to “mainstream" armed Islamists and other extremists into politics. The groups include the Milli Muslim League (MML), whose leader Saifullah Khalid supported Hafiz Saeed, the mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack; Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP); Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ); and the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA).

Role of the Pakistan army

The Pakistan army is seen to be playing a major role in helping Imran Khan win by keeping Nawaz Sharif and his daughter in prison. There are also reports that the army has been trying to help Khan cobble together a coalition should the PTI not secure an outright majority. The PML-N and PPP have accused the army of interference ahead of the elections through intimidation of their candidates and stifling the press from covering their campaigns.

Implications for the region

Pakistan has been inelegantly described as the epicentre of terrorism in the region—given the proliferation of extremist groups in the country that have been known to target Afghanistan and India. With the Pakistan army unlikely to cede control of foreign policy to the civilian government, it seems unlikely that there will be any let-up in terrorism vis-a-vis these two countries. The Pakistan military’s Inter Service Intelligence (ISI) wing is seen as sheltering some of the terrorist groups targeting India and Afghanistan.

Implications for India

The installation of a new government in Pakistan could provide an opening for the two countries to thaw ties. Bilateral dialogue between the two countries has been frozen since 2013 mainly due to terrorist attacks in India seen as supported by Pakistan. This is despite a surprise visit to Pakistan by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in December 2015. Given that Pakistan’s India policy is set by the Pakistan military and that the PTI could look for support from the Islamists to form a coalition government, analysts say that Khan and his party would be likely guided by the army which benefits not from a peace process with India but by controlled and managed hostility with India.

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