Shaiq Hussain and Antonio Olivo
Islamabad | This week's elections to choose Pakistan's next prime minister are rife with tension that, analysts say, could erupt into political upheaval in the nuclear-armed nation that is a key player in US-driven efforts to fight terrorism in the region.
Emotions are high over a corruption case that put ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif in prison this month. Wednesday's elections for control of the National Assembly are expected to be a close contest between Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N party and former cricket star Imran Khan's Pakistan Movement for Justice party.
After a recent string of suicide bomb attacks at political rallies killed nearly 160 people in less than a week, including a candidate from Khan's party on Sunday, 371,000 soldiers will be at polling stations around the country - what some see as a necessary layer of security and others regard as proof that the nation's military, which has staged several coups in the past, intends to control the results in a still-fragile democracy.
Against that backdrop is the possibility that Khan, 65, who is seen as a favourite of Pakistan's armed forces, will prevail.
Anything but an overwhelming victory by either side is likely to be marred by allegations of fraud and a struggle for control of the government - pulling attention away from a foundering economy, a looming debt crisis and foreign policy concerns that include U.S. attempts to end the war in neighbouring Afghanistan, analysts say.
"There is a higher likelihood than there has been in the past that this could end up in a political crisis that makes governance virtually impossible," said Moeed Yusuf, a South Asia expert at the US Institute for Peace.
Corruption and poverty
Khan, a fiery orator who casts himself as a crusader against government corruption, has seized on the case that ensnared Sharif - a three-time prime minister - and his daughter Maryam Nawaz, 44.
They both returned home from London this month to turn themselves in after they were found guilty of hiding money through the ownership of luxury London apartments and other offshore properties, a case that stemmed from the leaked 2016 Panama Papers.
Sharif, 68, received a 10-year sentence, while his daughter got seven years. Both are appealing their prison terms.
Khan and his supporters say the case shows how the halls of power in Islamabad have long been addled by corruption at the expense of the nation's tattered economy.
"The difference now is that I speak to a public that understands issues like corruption and how it impacts their lives," Khan wrote on Twitter this month. "They now understand (the) correlation between corruption & poverty, unemployment & inflation."
His message has resonated with the country's growing urban middle class, which is mostly young and conservative, said Michael Kugelman, a senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington.
"These young urban conservative middle-class folks, they see the established parties as corrupt, out of touch and not really interested in providing for the common people," Kugelman said. "That is a key constituency to capture."
Sharif's party is reeling from the fact that its charismatic founder is in prison and disqualified for life from holding office.
'Mockery of justice'
But the party remains formidable, particularly in populous Punjab province - home to 141 National Assembly seats - which lifted Sharif to power in the 2013 elections. To control the government outright, a party needs to win at least 172 seats.
Before turning himself in, Sharif energised his base by alleging that the corruption charges were part of a move by the armed forces to push him out.
As prime minister, Sharif was often at odds with the military and advocated for policies its leaders were against, such as normalising relations with India, the country's bitter foe.
After boarding the plane that would deliver him to Pakistani authorities, Sharif angled for support from sympathetic voters who might agree with his argument that Khan is a military puppet and might appreciate that he and his daughter were willing to face their prison sentences instead of living in exile.
"Let's change the destiny of this country. These opportunities will not come again," Sharif said in a recorded video that some analysts believe was also meant to lay the groundwork for a longer-term resurgence if his party - now headed by his younger brother Shahbaz Sharif - were to lose.
Maryam Nawaz, who has relentlessly attacked the military for being behind "a mockery of justice," is regarded as the party's heir apparent.
The third major party - the Pakistan People's Party, led by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of slain former prime minister Benazir Bhutto - is not seen as a strong contender. But it could play a role in forming a ruling coalition if there is no clear winner - a possibility that, analysts say, would also likely lead to more hostility.
Pakistan's military and security forces are preoccupied with the recently heightened potential for violence on election day. The National Counter Terrorism Authority told the country's election commission that the leaders of almost all the major political parties face the risk of attack.
Two candidates for local legislatures were killed in the spate of attacks that killed dozens in the past month. Last week, a father-son duo on the Pakistan Muslim League-N ticket narrowly escaped being gunned down in their car while leaving a political rally in Punjab.
With some candidates tied to Islamist extremist groups, the nation's nerves are on edge over the possibility of more bloodshed.
"The recent wave of terrorist attacks has created an atmosphere of fear across the country, which doesn't augur well for the elections," said Sohail Warraich, a political commentator based in Lahore. "It's a serious challenge for our security forces to ensure peaceful and smooth elections."
Government officials say that, in addition to the army troops stationed at voting stations, local police and the Pakistan Rangers, a federal paramilitary group, will be deployed. Upon arrival at the polls, voters will be frisked, authorities said.
Such a show of force is cause for concern among those who believe the military is seeking to manipulate the election, bolstered by recent reports that some candidates with the Pakistan Muslim League-N and the Pakistan People's Party have been harassed by security forces or pressured to switch political loyalties.
Pakistani military officials say that such reports are baseless and that the nation's military is apolitical.
Mehdi Hasan, chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said his organisation "is gravely concerned" about the potential influence of the security forces on the outcome.
"While it is critical that the polls are held as scheduled," Hasan said in a statement, "there are now ample grounds to doubt their legitimacy - with alarming implications for Pakistan's transition to an effective democracy."