Wednesday's election in Pakistan marks the second time in the country's 71-year history that power will be passed from one civilian government to another. But the weeks leading to the vote have been marred by extreme violence. Activists, journalists and candidates say the campaign was tainted, throwing a fragile democratic process into question.
"There were huge complaints about what happened in the lead-up this time around," says Omar Waraich, deputy South Asia director at Amnesty International. "We've had very serious allegations about arbitrary detentions, about restrictions on the media, about attacks on people's rights to freedom of assembly, association and expression."
Some candidates have shifted their allegiances to rival parties or run as independents, suggesting pressure or intimidation. Journalists contend that their reporting is being suppressed. And there are accusations of interference by the military, which has used its might in the past to stage coups and oust leaders.
"The fact that you have the relentless efforts to crack down on dissent and the media — you're seeing democratic institutions being besieged in Pakistan, and that bodes ill for democratization," says Michael Kugelman, senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.
Voting day came after a spate of terrorist attacks killing civilians and politicians — including a suicide bombing in the provincial town of Mastung that killed more than 150 people at a campaign rally. To prepare for the tens of millions of people expected to vote, police blocked off roads and cleared buildings for the counting of ballots. Hundreds of thousands of troops were deployed to polling stations and police in Pakistan's northwest have deployed surveillance vehicles to stream live video.
More than 80,000 polling booths are scheduled to open across the country, with nearly 106 million people registered to vote. The preliminary results are expected to come in hours after polls close on Wednesday evening.
The early hours of voting day were already blighted with violence in the southwestern city of Quetta, where a suicide bomber targeting a police van killed more than 28 people outside a polling station, and the death toll was expected to rise.
Over 100 parties have registered to run for national and regional parliamentary seats, but nationally, it's a closely contested race between two: the former ruling party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, led by the brother of jailed former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, with Imran Khan, a former cricket star, at its helm.
"All the polls show it's neck-and-neck," says Kugelman.
Khan, 65, made his name as an international cricketer before founding his political party in 1996. His party has never held national power and vows to fight corruption. He has criticized his country's counter-terrorism efforts, calling for peace talks with Pakistan's Taliban.
"What's clear is that Imran Khan is getting more support than he's ever gotten before. And that's not because of any rigging. There is a general enthusiasm for him," says Waraich. "The question is, does that mean he builds up enough support to form a majority in parliament?"
Sharif, 68, a three-time prime minister, was disqualified from office last year by the Supreme Court, after the Panama Papers leak revealed that he had secret property in London. He was handed a 10-year prison sentence this month. His brother Shehbaz, 66, now leads the party, which traditionally holds strong sway in Punjab, the most populous province, and now accuses the military of favoring Khan. This month, police opened some 17,000 criminal cases against PML-N candidates, and detained hundreds of party supporters.
The Pakistan People's Party, led by Asif Zardari, former president and husband of the assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, is also fielding candidates. He co-leads the party with his son, Bilawal. The party is expected to form a large bloc in Pakistan's parliament — and potentially act as a deal-maker if a coalition will be formed.
It's not that the military necessarily supports Khan, says Kugelman. "The army essentially wants a weak coalition government, and that's because the army in Pakistan is a very powerful force that tends to influence politics," he says. "It's so much easier to exploit and influence a weak and divided government, as opposed to a strong government led by one party."
The army, he says, does not want to see the ruling party come back. "I do think there is reason to fear that the army is trying to undercut the electoral prospects of the ruling [PML-N] party, which the army has sparred with quite frequently over the last two years," he says.
The military views Khan as the least bad outcome, he says.
Among dozens of other political groups vying for representation in parliament are extremist parties — including a front for a militant organization whose leader, Hafiz Saeed, is on a United Nations terrorist blacklist. Saeed stands accused of masterminding attacks in India that left more than 160 people dead.
"By having all these hardline religious parties in the election fray, you risk legitimizing their ideologies, which in many cases are toxic and violent," Kugelman warns.
While some militants have campaigned freely, some secular candidates faced travel restrictions and house arrest, the BBC reported.
The election's "most likely outcome," he believes, "is a lack of a clear winner," meaning there will be continued political volatility.
Interviews among voters across rural and urban areas of Pakistan suggest that bread-and-butter issues — jobs, food costs, economic growth — remain most important.
In a working-class area of Lahore, many residents said they'd vote for Sharif's party. Roshan Abbas, a rickshaw driver, said the party had improved the roads, and installed streetlights and sanitation in his area.
In the same area, those who said they'd vote for Khan's party said they wanted change – and said they'd been neglected by Sharif's party.
"We are poor," said Mohammed Ishtiyaq, a wedding singer, so "they did not do anything in my area."
"The roads are broken," he said. "The sewage system is in a shambles."
For other voters – chiefly in urban, middle-class areas — there was a sense of fatigue with the old ruling party. Col. Amjad Feroze, 45, said he'd vote for Khan, hoping he'd fix Pakistan's chronically weak economy and security challenges.
"Basically, we have tested and tried the previous one, they didn't come up to our expectations. Let's give a chance to a new person," he said.
Abdul Sattar contributed to this story from Islamabad. Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.