“General elections will be held in the country on the 11th of May. We must not harbour any doubts or misgivings about it,” he said.
“I assure you that we stand committed to wholeheartedly assist and support the conduct of free, fair and peaceful elections,” he said. “I also assure you that this support shall solely be aimed at strengthening democracy and rule of law in the country.”
High turnout is expected particularly in the populous eastern provinces of Punjab and Sindh, where most electoral constituencies are located, and where the two major national parties – Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party, or PPP, and the Pakistan Muslim League-N, or PML-N – are headquartered.
At the last election in February 2008, the PPP had won in its southern stamping ground of Sindh province and captured enough seats in Punjab and elsewhere to form a coalition government. Its victory was largely due to sympathy that followed the assassination of its leader and former two-time prime minister, Benazir Bhutto. Zardari is her widower.
This time round, PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif, also a former two-time prime minister, looks set to recapture ground lost in 2008 to the PPP, and to rebels who had deserted the party after its last government was overthrown by Pervez Musharraf in a military coup in 1999.
The PPP is expected to come in a respectable second, on the back of constituencies in Sindh and pockets of support elsewhere in Pakistan. The insurgency-hit western provinces of Baluchistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the troubled city of Karachi are expected to be shared by many national, regional and religious parties.
Within a split mandate, Sharif is widely predicted to become the country’s first three-time prime minister, although his party probably would struggle to win a majority of the 272 seats being contested.
He is a right-of-center moderate whose campaign has been firmly centered on the revival of the economy and improved governance, and the resolution of Pakistan’s conflicts.
In anticipation of victory, Sharif on Sunday signaled a moderate policy stance to the international community. He has spoken, in particular, about his belief that Pakistan should work with the international community to bring about a Taliban-inclusive dialogue aimed at resolving the conflict in Afghanistan. He has similar plans for the Pakistan Taliban insurgents.
“I think guns and bullets are (never) the answer to such problems,” Sharif said in an interview with CNN’s Indian affiliate.
The great unknown of the campaign is Imran Khan, a sports star turned reformist politician whose Movement for Justice party has directed its appeal to first-time voters and people disenchanted with the two major parties, particularly in urban areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab.
Khan is the only candidate who has sought to tap into anti-American sentiment, saying he would end the war with Taliban insurgents and order the air force to shoot down CIA drones if they entered Pakistani airspace. But such rhetoric is not reflective of a religious fundamentalist, which the erstwhile playboy Khan is not, but of a general desire among educated Pakistanis to regain national pride.
Other party candidates have generally called for the cessation of U.S. drone operations, but it hasn’t been a major theme of the election campaign.