ISLAMABAD — Despite a bloody campaign marred by Taliban attacks, Pakistan holds historic elections today pitting a former cricket star against a two-time prime minister once exiled by the army and an incumbent blamed for power blackouts and inflation.
The vote marks the first time in Pakistan's 65-year history that a civilian government has completed its full term and handed over power in democratic elections. Previous governments have been toppled by military coups or sacked by presidents allied with the powerful army.
Deadly violence struck again Friday, with two bombings against election offices in northwest Pakistan that killed three people and a shooting that killed a candidate in the southern city of Karachi. More than 130 people have been killed in the run-up to the vote, mostly secular party candidates and workers. Most attacks have been traced to Taliban militants, who have vowed to disrupt a democratic process they say runs counter to Islam.
The vote is being watched closely by Washington since the United States relies on the nuclear-armed country of 180 million people for help in fighting Islamic militants and negotiating an end to the war in neighboring Afghanistan.
The rise of former cricket star Imran Khan, who has almost mythical status in Pakistan, has challenged the dominance of the country's two main political parties, making the outcome of the election very hard to call.
"The two-party dominance has broken down, and now you have a real third force challenging these parties," said Moeed Yusuf, South Asia adviser at the United States Institute of Peace.
The election of both the national and provincial assemblies comes at a time of widespread despair in Pakistan, as the country suffers from weak economic growth, rampant electricity and gas shortages, and a deadly Taliban insurgency.
There is concern that the violence could benefit Islamist parties and those who take a softer line toward the militants, including Khan and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, because they were able to campaign more freely.