Nawaz Sharif the front-runner in Pakistan poll 'but everything can change'

The latest polling data suggest tomorrow's historic election is far too close to call. Taimur Khan reports from Karachi

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KARACHI // Millions of Pakistanis will do tomorrow what has never been done before in their country's history: hold a civilian government that has served a full term in office to account through the ballot box.

The 86.2 million potential voters live in a society in the midst of great change, where a growing middle class and huge youth population are hungry for the opportunities promised by rapid urbanisation and a modernising economy.

But the country is beset by a debilitating power crisis, flailing economy and unrelenting Islamist political violence and insurgency that threaten to leave Pakistan's promise rotting on the vine.

Eager for a new government to lead them out of this morass, a strong anti-incumbency sentiment in Pakistan's largest province, Punjab, has fuelled a neck-and-neck race to unseat the outgoing Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), which is blamed by voters for five years of perceived mismanagement.

Experts favour the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) faction led by the former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, to prevail over the Movement for Justice, led by cricket legend Imran Khan, in their bids to form a government in the next parliament. But the latest polling data suggest the race is far too close to call.

"The probability at the moment is that Nawaz is the front-runner," said Mohmmad Waseem, professor of political science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. "But on the 11th [of May], everything can change."

The unpredictability of the race has electrified the politics-obsessed nation, which has had truncated civilian rule, essentially shared between the PPP and PML-N, for less than half of its 65-year existence. The military has thrown out or engineered the premature demise of every previous elected parliament.

While many factors contributed to the unprecedented civilian transfer of power, including deft political consensus-building by the PPP over constitutional amendments, the entrenchment of Pakistan's democratic transition has perhaps been most bolstered by the political awakening of the middle classes.

Pakistan has seen vast socio-economic changes since the 1980s, but its politics remained dominated by the old feudal and industrial elites who traded patronage in the form of jobs and services for the votes of the poor.

The middle classes remained largely apolitical, accessing the benefits of the state through the military or civil bureaucracy. But as the economy and population continue their grand shift from rural to urban, the numbers of the middle class have grown far beyond what the old model can accommodate.

Mr Khan's meteoric rise after leading two massive anti-corruption rallies in 2011 was largely because of this demographic that was waiting for a spark to ignite its political expression.

"Finally we are seeing [politics] catching up with a rapidly changing society," said Umair Javed, a researcher at the Lahore-based Centre for Economic Research in Pakistan. "The real entrenchment of democracy that's happened is by bringing the middle class into the electoral space."

Voters under age 30 make up 35 per cent of the electorate, and Mr Khan has especially caught the imagination of young urban Pakistanis in closely-fought Punjab with his promises of sweeping out corrupt politicians and creating a "new Pakistan" based on meritocracy and technocratic rule.

Turnout is expected to be higher than the last elections in 2008, when only 40 per cent of Pakistanis cast their vote. This would benefit Mr Khan, according to analysts, because the number of voters is likely to be boosted by young first-time voters in urban areas.

Political observers are still expecting Mr Sharif's party to garner the most votes in the first-past-the-post electoral system used in Pakistan, even though most expect no party to have enough votes - 172 - to form a majority in parliament.

If the PML-N does form a coalition government, it would most likely be with the PPP, which is expected to carry its home province, Sindh.

Mr Sharif's centre-right party is widely perceived to be business friendly, and would likely create a more flexible tax regime to encourage investment in manufacturing and trade, Mr Javed said. A central plank of his economic platform is increasing trade with India by creating a trade corridor from Central Asia to India.

His government would also be under great pressure from its urban Punjabi constituency to solve the energy crisis, which has wrought havoc on manufacturing.

But, Mr Waseem said, with 872 billion Pakistani rupees (Dh32.5bn) in power-sector debt to service, and harsh terms attached to any additional International Monetary Fund loans, the electricity crisis is likely to continue.

While the middle class voters may have cemented democracy as the only option for governance in Pakistan, the highly contested election could end up benefiting the still-powerful military.

The fewer seats the eventual winner has, the weaker its coalition would be, and this instability "might just produce an outcome whereby maybe a year and a half down the line the government falls and we see fresh elections", Mr Javed said.

"A weak coalition government will be in no position to assert authority over defence or strategic policy, and to a certain extent the economy", which the military has major stakes in, he added. If this happens, "I think the military will be quite happy".

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