Pakistanis voted on Wednesday in a knife-edge general election pitting cricket hero Imran Khan against the party of jailed ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, with the prospect of neither winning a clear majority.
A decade after Pakistan was last ruled by a military government, the election has been plagued by allegations the powerful armed forces have been trying to tilt the race in Khan’s favor after falling out with the outgoing ruling party of Sharif, who was jailed on corruption charges this month.
The most recent opinion polls say the two parties are running neck-and-neck. Khan has emerged as a slight favorite in national polls, but the divisive race is likely to come down to Punjab, the country’s most populous province, where Sharif’s party has clung to its lead in recent surveys.
“Imran Khan is the only hope to change destiny of our country. We are here to support him in his fight against corruption,” said Tufail Aziz, 31, after casting his ballot in the north-western city of Peshawar.
About 106 million people are registered to vote in polls due to close at 6 p.m (1300 GMT). Results will start trickling in within hours, and the likely winner should be known by around 2 a.m. on Thursday.
Whichever party wins, it will face a mounting and urgent in-tray, from the economic crisis to worsening relations with on-off ally the United States to deepening cross-country water shortages.
An anti-corruption crusader, Khan has promised an “Islamic welfare state” and cast his populist campaign as a battle to topple a predatory political elite hindering development in the impoverished mostly-Muslim nation of 208 million people, where the illiteracy rate hovers above 40 percent.
“We are pitched against mafias,” Khan, 65, said in one of his last rallies in the coastal city of Karachi. “These are mafias who made money in this country and siphoned it abroad, burying this nation in debt”.
Khan has staunchly denied allegations by Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party that he is getting help from the military, which has ruled Pakistan for about half of its history and still sets key security and foreign policy in the nuclear-armed nation. The army has also dismissed allegations of meddling in the election.
Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party has inched ahead of PML-N in recent national polls, but even if it gets the most votes, it will likely struggle to win a majority of the 272 elected seats in the National Assembly, raising the prospect of weeks of haggling to form a messy coalition government.
Such a delay could further imperil Pakistan’s economy, with a looming currency crisis expected to force the new government to turn to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for Pakistan’s second bailout since 2013. PTI has not ruled out seeking succour from China, Islamabad’s closest ally.