ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The government on Friday urged Pakistan’s 80 million registered voters to defy extremist threats of suicide-bomb attacks on polling stations and trust that stepped-up security forces — 670,000 police, paramilitary troops and army soldiers — would safeguard the public in Saturday’s historic cliffhanger election.
“Our message is that the Pakistani people’s resolve for democracy is much greater than the Taliban’s threat to stop it,” said Arif Nizami, the information and broadcasting minister.
The election-season caretaker government has faced fierce criticism from secular-party candidates for failing to protect them from relentless violence — including the kidnapping at gunpoint this week of a former prime minister’s son, an aspiring lawmaker, at a campaign rally.
The ex-premier, Yousuf Raza Gilani, said that such acts have hurt the electoral chances of his liberal Pakistan People’s Party, which just completed an unprecedented five-year term, by forcing it to circumscribe campaigning.
The anti-militant Awami National Party and progressive Muttahida Qaumi Movement, both hard hit by the Pakistani Taliban, also blame the weak interim government for allowing the native anti-state insurgency to effectively rig the vote.
“Our candidates, supporters and workers are facing threats of the Taliban on a daily basis,” said Bashir Jan, the ANP’s general secretary in Sindh province, who survived a bomb attack a few days ago.
Nizami said the responsibility for campaign security falls mainly to provincial officials, although the federal government also has a role. “We are not buck-passing,” the minister said, “but under the circumstances, you can’t provide seamless security.”
About 115 people have died in attacks against candidates, party offices and rallies since the month-long campaign season began April 11. The election, which will bring an unprecedented handoff between elected governments, is thought to be the deadliest in the nation’s 65-year history.
At least 36 million Pakistanis are expected to turn out Saturday at 77,000 polling stations to elect national and provincial assemblies. Participation might well be higher, election officials say, because of an increase in new voters.
Half of those registered are first-time voters between ages 18 and 39, election officials said, and many have been galvanized by charismatic third-party candidate Imran Khan, a cricket champion also widely respected for his philanthropy.
Khan, 60, is still hospitalized and recovering from back injuries after a fall from a forklift used to raise him to the stage this week during a campaign rally in Lahore.
“He should be up and running in two weeks,” Khan’s campaign manager, Asad Umar, said Friday, citing doctors’ assessments.
The process of forming a government can take at least that long, especially when there is no clear winner and parties must broker a coalition.
Some pundits say Khan may benefit from a sympathy vote. In Islamabad, he drew more than 30,000 supporters Thursday night for a rally he addressed by video link.
But Shamila N. Chaudhary, a senior analyst at the Eurasia Group, and other experts still predict that former two-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N is most likely to win the most seats and has the best chance of cobbling together a coalition government — but one that may get little done.
“I imagine that there’s going to be a hung parliament,” Michael Kugelman, an analyst at the Woodrow Wilson Center, said in a briefing this week. “I don’t see any way any party will get an outright majority. And I imagine that Nawaz Sharif will be the prime minister, but I would not want to be held to that. Imran Khan certainly is a wild card.”
Khan and Sharif both have benefited from not being targeted by the Pakistani Taliban. The insurgent group has said it does not consider them enemies because neither party was in power when the military launched operations against the group.
But the al-Qaeda-aligned militants have threatened to blow up polling places — usually schools — to derail the overall election, because they consider voting a secular exercise that violates Islamic tenets.
Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar an Nisar Mehdi in Karachi contributed to this report.