Pakistan plans to hold national elections in the spring of 2013. If all goes according to plan, the poll will mark the first time a civilian government completed a full five-year term and transferred power through the ballot box.
“A peaceful transition would mean that the civilian authority – the civilian supremacy – of the parliament over the state would get kind of a boost,” said Islamabad-based political analyst Raza Rumi. “Because our history has been so tragic, we haven’t allowed democratic institutions to evolve properly so that they can deliver.”
“Securing the transition so that it is peaceful, violence-free, legitimate and agreed by all parties will be a challenge because we have a lot of conflicting variables in the country. We have certain quarters that don’t want elections and would rather go for a technocratic caretaker management government, but the political parties all want an election, so there is a bit of a conflict.”
The historic vote will be held during what is an extremely volatile period for the 65-year-old country. The Pakistani Taliban and associated groups are waging a violent insurgency against the state. In recent months, minorities and other civilians have also been attacked.
In December, 9 health workers, mostly women, were shot and killed while administering polio vaccinations during a nationwide drive against the disease backed by the government and the UN.
While no group has claimed responsibility, the Pakistani Taliban has, in recent months, been speaking out against such programmes, accusing those involved of being spies for the West and claiming that the drugs used are harmful.
Suspicion of health workers, especially foreign ones, has grown after it was revealed that the US Central Intelligence Agency, with the help of a local doctor, operated a fake hepatitis vaccination programme as part of an attempt to access the compound where Osama bin Laden was found in Abbottabad.
And while for the outside world Pakistan’s security issues dominate the headlines, for many voters within the country the key issues are more basic. Affordable food and fuel appear to be the biggest concerns, and many Pakistanis are finding it increasingly difficult to feed their families.
According to recent UN figures, more than 7 million people are severely food insecure, with the poorest households spending around two-thirds of their income on food and cutting back on other basics like healthcare and education.
As the Pakistani rupee steadily loses its value and inflation rises, a further 45 million people are considered vulnerable.
Aman Ishaq, who runs a fruit and vegetable stand in Islamabad, said in the 25 years his family has run the business, the situation has never been so bad.
“Supply is low and I have very few customers,” he said. “Most cannot afford the more expensive items. The people who do come are very worried. Their monthly income is not enough that they can eat fruits and vegetables.”
“Some customers blame us for raising the prices, but it’s not our fault. Why should we raise prices? We want to get things cheaply so that we can sell them cheaply to our customers, but because of government policies there is very little gas and electricity – which means the transportation costs have increased three times. And that’s why our produce is also expensive.”
Pakistan’s energy shortfall is also worsening. This summer, thousands took part in street protests against the frequent power cuts. Many were angry they were left without electricity for up to 18 hours a day at a time of year when temperatures can reach up to 45 degree celsius.
In recent months, natural gas shortages have also become a major issue, crippling industries that rely on the fuel and making it difficult for those who use it to heat their homes and power their cars.
Pakistan’s ongoing energy crisis is made worse by successive governments’ corruption and poor management. Along with the country’s huge debt and lack of foreign currency reserves, it’s become impossible for the government to purchase enough power from independent suppliers to sell to consumers.
Raza Rumi predicts energy could be defining issue of the upcoming vote. “Pakistan is facing a lot of problems in terms of buying petroleum products and repaying its debts, because exports aren’t growing as they should and the rupee is falling … This is the major challenge of 2013.”
Around 80 million people are eligible to vote in the upcoming general election, whose date has yet to be announced. But with Pakistanis’ basic needs nowhere close to being met, voters will have a lot to consider when casting their ballot.