Islamabad: The first general elections in Pakistan that will usher in a smooth democratic transfer of power in 66 years is likely to go down to the wire with no party expected to get a majority.
With less than two weeks to go for the landmark election to choose the 342-member National Assembly, two-time former premier Nawaz Sharif appears to have an edge over others and his group may emerge as the single largest party notwithstanding a late surge by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan in heartland of Punjab. All indications are that the country could be heading for another coalition government, analysts say.
Battered by allegations of poor governance and corruption and hampered by a lacklustre campaign, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and its allies, which held power till recently, are unlikely to get the numbers that had helped them capture power in 2008.
At that time, the PPP bagged a total of 125 seats in the National Assembly largely on the strength of a sympathy wave generated by the assassination of former premier Benazir Bhutto weeks before the election.
This time around, Bhutto's widower, President Asif Ali Zardari, has been barred from campaigning by the judiciary and the PPP has struggled while wooing voters even in its traditional strongholds in Sindh.
Attacks by the banned Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan on the PPP and its secular allies, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) in southern Sindh and the Awami National Party (ANP) in northwestern Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, have forced them to curtail their election campaign and keep their leaders away from rallies and meetings.
Analysts say all this has strengthened the hands of Sharif in an election seen as largely as issue less. Sharif and his brother, former Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, have attracted massive crowds during their campaign but these large turnouts have largely been in their traditional stronghold of Punjab, the country's most populous province and the only region where campaigning has not been affected by militant threats.
In the last polls, the PML-N bagged 92 seats in the National Assembly, including 69 directly elected seats and 20 nominated seats reserved for women and non-Muslims. Under Pakistan's electoral system, reserved seats are distributed among parties in proportion to the directly seats won by them.
Analysts believe the PML-N will bag around the same number of directly-elected seats this time around though the figure will be lower if the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf is able to woo the large crowds that have turned out for party chief Imran Khan's rallies, especially in southern Punjab.
Khan has also been able to make a dent in the Hazara area of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, where people have usually backed the PML-N. Pakistan appears set for another coalition government, says Raza Rumi, Editor of The Friday Times.
"Like India, Pakistani politics has become regionalised and more fragmented. Coalitions seem to be the future of Pakistani democracy, at least in the medium term," Rumi told.