ISLAMABAD: Former Pakistan cricket star Imran Khan's party was enjoying a late surge of support on Friday, the eve of a landmark election, raising the prospect of a fragmented parliament that could lead to weeks of haggling to form a coalition government.
The failure of other parties to capture a commanding lead raises the risk a weak government will emerge, clouding optimism over the first transition between civilian governments in a country that has been ruled by the military for more than half its history.
In a sign of Imran's popularity, 35,000 supporters turned up on Thursday at a rally in Islamabad that he didn't even attend.
The 60-year-old is in hospital after suffering injuries in a fall from a mechanical lift at a rally this week, which may also win him sympathy votes.
"While Imran was initially handicapped by the lack of party organisation and the absence of a formal presence at the provincial level, he managed to overcome these challenges by establishing a network of volunteers who have campaigned frenetically and held massive public rallies in recent weeks," said Shamila Chaudhary, senior editor at Eurasia Group.
Imran, Pakistan's most well-known sportsmen who led a playboy lifestyle in his younger days, has emerged as a tough challenger to dynastic politicians who have relied heavily on a patronage system to win votes and are often accused of corruption.
Campaigning officially ended at midnight on Thursday.
Election-related violence that has killed more than 110 people continued on the eve of the vote.
Five people were killed in bomb attacks on party offices on Friday, one in Quetta, capital of the southwestern province of Balochistan, and the other in the northwestern city of Peshawar.
The al Qaeda-linked Pakistan Taliban, which regards the elections as un-Islamic, are responsible for the attacks that have made this the country's bloodiest election yet, and on Thursday they revealed plans for suicide bombings on polling day.
“Fractured mandate” warning
Imran, who appeals mostly to young, urban voters, has won support by calling for an end to corruption, a new political landscape and a halt to US drone strikes on Pakistani soil.
Early opinion polls had put the share of votes for Khan's Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party as low as single figures.
However, a survey released on Wednesday showed 24.98 percent of voters nationally planned to vote for his party, just a whisker behind former prime minister Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N).
The Herald magazine poll showed Sharif's party remained the front-runner in Punjab, which, with the largest share of parliamentary seats, usually dictates the outcome of elections.
It also pointed to an upset for the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), which led the last government, placing it in third place.
The political landscape has long been dominated by the PML-N and the PPP, whose co-chairman is President Asif Ali Zardari, widower of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.
"The PPP didn't take care of the poor masses and always engages in corrupt practices whenever they come to power," said Sher Nabi, a banker from Peshawar.
"So we've decided to vote for the PTI candidate this time and test Imran Khan to see if proves as honest as he claims."
Sharif, who was prime minister twice in the 1990s, has said he would reconsider Pakistan's support for the US war on militancy and promote free-market economics if he won.
He has warned that any coalition politics would paralyse policy-making.
"Whichever party wins, it needs to have a very clear majority for it to have the necessary policies to deal with the serious challenges the country faces, for the state to have a strong writ," he told the Dawn newspaper.
"A fractured mandate, a split mandate, would be worse than the last five years."
While the outgoing PPP made history by becoming the first civilian government to serve a full five-year term, it failed to tackle a dizzying array of problems.
The economy is feeble and may need another International Monetary Fund bailout to stay afloat. Chronic power cuts can last more than 10 hours a day in some places, crippling key industries like textiles and enraging ordinary people.
After months of campaigning, political parties may now become enmeshed in negotiations that might only delay the huge task of putting the nuclear-armed country on the right track.
"While a hung parliament is a possibility given the expected fractured outcome of polling, it is the least desirable outcome for all parties," said analyst Chaudhary.
"It would lead to an unstable minority government that could conceivably be led by PML-N, PPP, or even PTI, inevitably leading to another round of elections that, given physical and financial requirements, the full range of parties would rather avoid."
Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.
For more information, please see our Comments FAQ