Pakistan heads to the polls on Thursday for an election that analysts say will be among the least credible in the country’s 76-year history, one that comes at a particularly turbulent moment for the nation.
For nearly half of Pakistan’s existence, the military has ruled directly. Even under civilian governments, military leaders have wielded enormous power, ushering in politicians they favored and pushing out those who stepped out of line.
This will be only the third democratic transition between civilian governments in Pakistan’s history. And it is the first national election since former Prime Minister Imran Khan was removed from power after a vote of no confidence in 2022. Mr. Khan’s ouster — which he accused the military of orchestrating, though the powerful generals deny it — set off a political crisis that has embroiled the nuclear-armed nation for the past two years.
The vote on Thursday is the culmination of an especially contentious campaign season, in which analysts say the military has sought to gut Mr. Khan’s widespread support and pave the way to victory for the party of his rival, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Here’s what you need to know.
What’s the campaign been like?
Over the past two years, Pakistanis have come out in droves to protest the behind-the-scenes role that they believe the military played in Mr. Khan’s ouster. The generals have responded in force, arresting Mr. Khan’s allies and supporters, and working to cripple his party ahead of the vote.
While the military has often meddled in elections to pave the way for its preferred candidates, analysts say this crackdown has been more visible and widespread than others.
That has also made this perhaps Pakistan’s most muted election in decades. Streets that would normally be filled with political rallies have remained empty. For weeks, many people were convinced that the election would not even take place on the scheduled date. A common refrain among Pakistanis is that this is a “selection” — not an election — as many feel it is clear that the military has predetermined the winner.
Roughly 128 million voters will be able to cast ballots for a new Parliament, which will then choose a new prime minister after the election.
There are 266 seats to fill in the National Assembly, the lower house of Parliament, with an additional 70 seats reserved for women and minorities. If no party wins an outright majority — which is considered highly likely — then the one with the biggest share of assembly seats can form a coalition government.
Three main parties dominate politics in Pakistan: the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (P.M.L.N.), the Pakistan People’s Party (P.P.P.) and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (P.T.I.).
Mr. Khan, the leader of P.T.I., has been notably absent from the campaign: He was arrested in August and has since been sentenced to multiple prison terms for a variety of offenses and barred from holding public office for a decade. Candidates from his party say they have been detained, forced to denounce the party and subjected to intimidation campaigns.
Most election observers expect a victory by the P.M.L.N., the party of Mr. Sharif. A three-time prime minister, Mr. Sharif built his political reputation on reviving economic growth. He has repeatedly fallen out with the military after pushing for more civilian control in government, only to find himself once more in its favor in this election.
The P.P.P. is led by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in 2007. The party is expected to win some seats in the south, where it has a power base, and would most likely form part of a Sharif-led coalition government.
What’s at stake?
Pakistan’s next government will inherit a raft of problems. The economy is in shambles, terrorist attacks have resurged and relations with neighbors — particularly Afghanistan, ruled by the Taliban — are tense.
The cost of living has soared in Pakistan, where inflation last year hit a record high of nearly 40 percent. Meanwhile, gas outages and electricity blackouts are frequent occurrences for the country’s 240 million people. Pakistan has had to turn to the International Monetary Fund for bailouts to keep its economy afloat and prop up its foreign exchange reserves. It also has relied on financing from wealthy allies, like China and Saudi Arabia.
At the same time, extremist violence in Pakistan has surged since the Taliban swept back to power in Afghanistan in 2021. Much of it has been carried out by the Pakistani Taliban, also known as Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or T.T.P. — an ally and ideological twin of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
That has stoked tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan, with Pakistani officials accusing the Taliban of offering the Pakistani Taliban safe haven on Afghan soil, a claim that Taliban officials deny. Those tensions appeared to boil over last year when Pakistan ordered all undocumented foreigners to leave the country by Nov. 1, a move that has primarily affected Afghans.
How will the vote take place?
A day before the poll, two separate explosions outside election offices in an insurgency-hit area of Pakistan killed at least 22 people. The blasts were the latest in a series of attacks on election-related activities, including the targeting of candidates, throughout the campaign season.
In light of such security threats, the authorities have designated half of Pakistan’s approximately 90,000 polling stations as “sensitive” or “most sensitive” and have deployed the military to secure them.
The polls will close at 5 p.m. Preliminary results are expected by late Thursday night, but it could take up to three days for all votes to be officially counted.
Once the count is finalized, members of Parliament will convene to form the government and choose the next prime minister. The selection of the prime minister is expected by the end of February.
Zia ur-Rehman contributed reporting.