There is a clear feeling that the election that will take place tomorrow is a watershed, but what exactly does that watershed consist of? Is it about choosing the right ruler? Or is it also about a change in the party system? Perhaps, a more basic question on that has been revived by the militant campaign, which  is: whether the process of elections is in accordance with the tenets of the religion that the vast majority of the population follows? Never before has an election been preceded by such deep concern about the candidates, thereby upsetting the major parties, which did not have such a freehand in choosing ‘winning horses’. Another factor in this election is how far PTI will make it a three-way contest.

It should not be forgotten that those who win are essentially mediators between the state and the electorate. People are not elected to legislate, but to obtain the benefits the state controls, like development funds and jobs. That explains why biradri candidates are so persistent, because that loyalty ensures that government goodies brought to the constituency, are monopolised (as far as possible) by one biradri.

That is one of the factors, which has made it an election where Imran Khan was to break out from the fringe. His slogan, of change, reflects how far the people of Pakistan are tired of the traditional leadership yielded in previous elections. It is almost as if the politics of the post-1988 period, with the PPP-PML-N binary dominant, is coming to an end.

It must be remembered that the binary reflects a division within society, roughly corresponding to the conservative-liberal divide that exists in older democracies. It is not possible to find a single marker, and there is much crossing (indeed blurring) of political boundaries. However, both seem (at least within the Pakistani context) responses to modernity. Admittedly, liberals prefer the more direct adoption of Western culture, and conservatives want to assert their identity more, but both idealise a Western culture, and see it as a reliable measure of progress.

Within that context, it is possible to see the PPP as the direct heir of Ayub Khan’s Convention Muslim League, not just because PPP founder Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was its Secretary-General, but because the leading lights of the PPP, like Mustafa Khar, Mustafa Jatoi and Malik Meraj Khalid, were Convention Leaguers. However, now the PPP may well have been driven into the ground by the leadership of President Asif Zardari. In fact, of the many things this election is going to do, one is to provide a practical demonstration of how the party has fared with him at the helm.

As the party in office when the caretakers took over, the PPP should have contested primarily on its record in office. However, judging by its TV advertising, it was betting mainly on the appeal of the late Ms Benazir and of her father Zulfikar. The message seemed to be that, whatever might be the record, the Bhutto family’s party deserved to be returned to office. It was, perhaps, wise of the PPP not to bring up its record in office, for it was that record that was being used by the PML-N in its own campaign for re-election.

It must be noted that the PTI, like the PPP in 1970, is claiming the youth vote. This was, and is, something of a two-edged sword. Youthful rebellion is about following politics opposed to one’s fathers. Bhutto was no sportsman like Imran Khan, but he was only 40 at the time the election was held, and prematurely grey, while Imran will turn 60 later this year. It should also be noted that, whereas the PTI has brought a lot of people into politics (again, like the PPP in 1970), it has got a lot of candidates from the PPP. Indeed, the PTI may well be a replacement for a PPP in terminal decline. As a party with a support base in the Pakistani diaspora, it reflects their concerns, and judges Pakistani politics by measures it has learnt abroad.

The PPP is such a major political force, that replacing it will, probably, not be the work of just one election. If the opinion poll results that have come in so far are any indicator, the PML-N should be winning handsomely. So far, it has been the PPP that has benefited from vote splits, but for the first time, the leftist vote will be split.

It also seems that the issue on which the PPP and the PTI have the greatest difference, foreign policy in general, Afghan policy in particular, has finally come into the open, and has become a campaign issue the way it was not in either 2002 or 2008, even though the MMA won in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2002 on its opposition to this policy.

Though there are other issues facing the nation, not the least loadshedding, inflation and law and order, the political dividing line is still about the two parties. It is worth noting that Imran is attempting to take over as the voice of the left. In fact, the PTI has taken aboard another element of the left, the opposition to the USA. This was a strong element in the original PPP appeal, later abandoned under Benazir. Under Zulfikar, the PPP had vowed to pursue the Kashmir cause. It is noticeable that Imran himself is of an age when his youth, like that of Benazir and Zardari, was spent under the PPP. However, this is the case for most other Pakistani politicians. The PTI is playing the anti-American card much as Bhutto played the PPP’s patriotic card.

The Muslim League under Nawaz may be poised to turn to office, and apart from criticism of the PPP government, has based its appeal on its record in government, both federal and provincial. It has most recently been in office in the Punjab, where Mian Shahbaz has just come off not just his second tenure as Chief Minister, but his first without elder brother Nawaz as PM.

At the same time, the party has taken the role of a conservative party, something which in Pakistan means that people, who look kindly on religion find it more comfortable. This does not mean that the PPP is irreligious, or even that the PTI is, but it does mean that it has a vote bank and a leadership that is inclined to reject outside pressures, and to maintain national independence. How much it can do, if it wins, depends on two traditions now in contradiction to one another: national independence and friendship to the USA.

The election was supposed to be about a better class of candidate, but it seems that, apart from ousting General (retd) Pervez Musharraf from elections for life, no one has been stopped from contesting. Thus, to expect too much from the Assemblies to be elected tomorrow is not just unrealistic, but in a certain sense unfair. The Assemblies will continue to be populated by the same sons, loan defaulters and exploiters of their position as before. And the government may be marginally better, but it will not be remarkably so.

However, one thing will be important: it is essential to show that elections work. It is not just that Pakistan is a Muslim country, but there is an alternative political model now available, in Syria, where the fight against the Assad regime has become one for the Islamic ruling system. That is, perhaps, more of a challenge for the political system in Pakistan, especially when combined with the attacks by the militants, which reflect the fact that adds to this election’s importance: that democracy, while not rejected, is distinctly shop-worn for the ordinary voter.

The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of TheNation.