Islamabad: Pakistanis are voting today to choose a new prime minister in the second democratic transition of power in the nation's 70-year history amid accusations of manipulation by the powerful army and concerns over the participation of Islamic hardliners in large numbers.
Pakistan goes to polls amid tight security
Nearly 106 million people are registered to vote for members of the lower house of parliament and four provincial assemblies.
According to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), 3,459 candidates are contesting for 272 general seats of the National Assembly, while 8,396 candidates are running for 577 general seats of the four provincial assemblies - Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.
The voting started at 8 AM local time on more than 85,000 polling stations. The counting of votes will be done on the spot soon after the conclusion of the polling process at 6 PM and the results will be announced within 24 hours.
More than 30 political parties have fielded their candidates for the elections.
The opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, led by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, is looking to unseat the incumbent Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), which was formally led by the now-jailed ex-prime minister Nawaz Sharif.
The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), led by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, is also in the race.
Shahbaz Sharif, the president of the PML-N who is hoping to become the next prime minister of Pakistan, was among the first people to cast his vote in Lahore.
"Just cast my vote. High time that all of you came out to vote for Pakistan's progress and prosperity. May this election be a source of peace and stability for the nation!," he tweeted after casting his vote.
For a smooth polling process, the ECP has deployed around 1.6 million staff at polling stations across the country.
About 449,465 policemen and over 370,000 military personnel have been deployed for security.
In a special message yesterday, Chief Election Commissioner Justice (retd) Sardar Raza Khan urged voters to fulfil their national duty of casting the ballot.
A public holiday has been declared across the country on Wednesday in order to facilitate the voting process.
Pakistan's National Assembly comprises a total of 342 members, of which 272 will be directly elected today whereas the rest — 60 seats reserved for women and 10 for religious minorities — are selected later through proportional representation among parties with more than five per cent of the vote.
A party can only form the government if it manages to clinch 172 seats in total.
The run up to the elections have seen a massive crackdown on the media and allegations that the military has secretly backed the campaign of Khan while targeting his political opponents.
The military has ruled Pakistan through various coups for nearly half of the country's history since independence in 1947. Even during the civilian rule, the generals have wielded enormous power, setting the agenda for the country's foreign and security policies.
Questions were raised about the role of the military after reports that it was given magisterial powers. The ECP was also criticised for deploying the Army both inside and outside of polling stations.
Army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa, however, assured that soldiers deployed for election duties would strictly comply with the code of conduct given by the ECP.
He also said the Army will only perform a facilitative role in the polls and that the polling process is to remain under the control and authority of the ECP.
Former prime minister Sharif, the supremo of the PML-N who was jailed this month after being convicted in a corruption case, also accused the military of pressuring the judiciary to convict him. Both institutions deny the charge.
Controversy has also arisen over allowing militant groups to participate in the elections.
Some of the infamous Pakistani extremist leaders, accused of spreading religious hatred and instigating sectarian violence, are among hundreds of candidates contesting the elections.
The leading among them are Mumbai-terror attack mastermind Hafiz Saeed-led banned Jamat-ud Dawa's candidates who are fighting with an aim to make Pakistan a "citadel of Islam." Saeed's son and son-in-law are contesting the elections.
In the run up to the elections, the country also witnessed a series of deadly attacks targeting candidates and campaign rallies, including one that killed 151 people in Balochistan province.
A fierce battle is expected between the PML-N and Khan's PTI in Punjab, the most populous province often known for deciding the next government in the country.
Khan has pledged to break the decades-old two party "status quo" of the PML-N and its historical rival the PPP.
Despite a massive electoral exercise, there is a big question if the elections would bring much needed political and economic stability in the country.