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Wednesday, 9 October, 2002, 09:33 GMT 10:33 UK
Pakistan's democracy test
Supporters of Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto
There have been some restrictions on campaigning

Pakistan's people are going to the polls on Thursday in the first general election for more than five years.

Key statistics
More than 70m electors
342 seats in national assembly
60 seats reserved for women
10 seats reserved for non-Muslims
728 seats in four provincial assemblies
President Pervez Musharraf has gone ahead with the polls, defying critics who said he would challenge a Supreme Court ruling that polls had to take place within three years of his October 1999 military coup.

But questions are being raised as to whether this will be a real transfer of power to democratically-elected politicians.

President Musharraf believes a controversial referendum in April guaranteed him five more years in office - but his role and that of the military have become a key issue in the elections.

Opposition

The campaign has been widely characterised as being dull and lifeless.

This is partly because the two former prime ministers, who are the leaders of two main opposition parties, are out of the country and barred from contesting - and there are restrictions on when and where public rallies can take place.

Benazir Bhutto
Benazir Bhutto: Barred from contesting
Benazir Bhutto of the Pakistan People's Party Parliamentarians is currently living in self-imposed exile in Dubai and London.

President Musharraf says she will have to serve a prison sentence for failing to appear in court on a corruption charge if she returns and is ineligible to stand under a new election rule relating to her conviction.

Her old rival Nawaz Sharif is in Saudi Arabia with his family.

He was arrested and convicted after the coup and allowed to leave under a deal brokered with the government.

The president says that the terms of the deal means he can not return or take part in politics for a decade.

King's party

Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League split after his fall from power and the larger faction, which calls itself the PML (Quaid-e-Azam) supports the government.

Key contenders
Pakistan People's Party
Anti-government Pakistan Muslim League
Pro-government Pakistan Muslim League
Alliance of religious parties
It is known by opponents as the "king's party" - because it is said to enjoy the backing of the state machinery.

Many have labelled this in effect pre-poll rigging - although the leaders of the party deny receiving official help and say they are independent.

The elections will be observed by hundreds of local and international observers - including those from the European Union and the Commonwealth.

Supporters of Pakistan's, Islamic party Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam
Islamic parties are appealing to anti-US sentiment

The findings of the Commonwealth observers will help decide whether Pakistan's suspension from the organisation will be lifted.

Analysts believe the elections will be a battle between the pro-government parties, the main anti-government political parties and a coalition of religious parties.

Constitutional amendments

The government has been encouraging the participation of women.

It has brought back and increased the provision of reserved seats for women.

More women than ever are also contesting the general seats.

And for the first time since 1977, the minority communities - which include Christians, Hindus and Parsees - can contest and vote for all general seats in the national and provincial assemblies - although one Muslim sect, the Ahmedis, still faces discrimination and they are boycotting the polls.

Supporters of the self exiled Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto
The government has encouraged the participation of women
Before the elections, President Musharraf introduced constitutional amendments giving him the power to dissolve the national assembly - and giving the military a wider role in politics through a national security council.

This has led to a debate over whether he is really prepared to hand over complete power to a civilian government and a prime minister.

It is widely believed that the elections will produce a hung parliament - and if that transpires then the real battle for power will begin after the election as the various parties try to form a winning coalition.


Talking PointTALKING POINT
Pakistan votes
A return to democracy after miltary rule?
Musharraf's Pakistan

Democracy challenge

Militant threat

Background

TALKING POINT

FROM THE ARCHIVES

BBC WORLD SERVICE
See also:

10 Oct 02 | South Asia
08 Oct 02 | South Asia
04 Oct 02 | South Asia
02 Oct 02 | South Asia
01 Oct 02 | South Asia
30 Sep 02 | South Asia
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