The 2013 elections will usher in a new government chosen by the people. Many of them will be casting their votes for the first time. More than 30 percent of the 86 million registered voters are the youth - 18 years and above. Millions of fake voters have been removed from the list.  Out of the 342 seats of the National Assembly, elections are being held for 272 - the remaining are reserved slots for women and minorities. The breakup of the 272 seats is: two from Islamabad Federal Capital Area, 12 from Fata, 14 from Balochistan, 35 from KPK, 61 from Sindh and 148 from Punjab.

According to surveys and opinion polls, the main contenders for power at the national level are the PML-N led by Nawaz Sharif and PTI commanded by Imran Khan. The PPP is bereft of leadership as Mr Asif Zardari is no longer politically active - his role having been restricted because of his holding the office of the President. Young Bilawal, for security or some other reason, has left the country. Because of the absence of a campaign captain, and PPP’s poor incumbency record, it no longer is expected to do very well, except for Sindh and south Punjab.

It is unfortunate that bloody violence has taken a heavy toll of some of the party leaders. Mostly the ANP and MQM have been the TTP targets, although others have also suffered casualties in many places. At one stage, it was apprehended that because of non-stop bomb blasts at a number of places, the elections might be postponed. But the Army Chief’s assurance and the assigning of military personnel near the polling booths, as well as the reassuring statements on the part of Election Commission and caretaker governments at the centre and the provinces, the electoral process has remained intact. The elections as scheduled shall be held today.

The rallies and public meetings held by PML-N and PTI attracted large crowds. Imran could not address the last few jalsas because of his fall from a forklift; he is presently hospitalised. He addressed the last PTI meeting held in Islamabad from his hospital bed. Whereas, Nawaz’s final election speech was in Lahore. Both Nawaz and Imran have been highlighting the problems faced by the Pakistanis and the way the PPP-led coalition governments have messed up things by ruining the economy and failing to establish law and order in the country; how rampant corruption has eaten up the state as also inflation and bad governance added to the misery of the masses. Both the party leaders have promised a “New Pakistan”.

While Nawaz leans on his performance during PML-N’s previous stints, Imran Khan spells out his agenda of reform and reconstruction after assumption of power. He refuses to accept that N’s record was good enough to merit a repeat performance. He accuses Nawaz of complicity with Zardari and holds both of them responsible for most of the ills and evils the country is suffering today.

One cannot rule out Imran’s optimism altogether. He, indeed, more than anyone else, will strive to bring about a real change. But a question mark about the number of seats his party will win remains. To my reckoning, he may not sweep the polls as he claims, but he and his party are bound to be a formidable force in the National and Provincial Assemblies. Even a small but spirited opposition can make substantial contribution in making laws and keeping the administration on its toes.

If, as the predictions promise, PML-N bags a large number of seats and forms the government at the centre and one or two provinces, there is bound to be considerable improvement. Both Nawaz and Shahbaz are go-getters and achievers. One may find fault with Shahbaz’s methodology and arbitrary way of decision-making, but none can deny his dynamism and determination for speedy implementation of plans and projects. He has been challenging his detractors to bring evidence for even one case where he could be accused of corruption. Nawaz too commands respect for impressive initiatives, such as economic reforms, the motorway, airports at Lahore and Karachi and, above all, going ahead with nuclear explosions. (Despite advice to the contrary and promise of billions of dollars by the US President.)

Where Imran comes up a cut above the PML-N leaders is his clean record and his resolve to do away with corruption and lawlessness. Both the parties have dished out attractive programmes to gear up the economy and both have considerable expertise available to them for planning and execution. Imran, it may be added, has an edge in regard to PTI’s plans for health and education as also for installing a grassroots local government system.

Interestingly, both - Imran and Nawaz - may run into a somewhat problematic relationship with the army and the Americans. Both would be keen to establish civilian supremacy over the GHQ and intelligence agencies. Both will be working to put an end to drone strikes and American interference in our national affairs. Nawaz Shairf, possibly, will, in these respects, be somewhat pragmatic in his approach compared to Imran Khan.

A major foreign affairs challenge for the new government will be the role Pakistan could play in the endgame in Afghanistan. President Hamid Karzai’s recent showing of his true colours vis-à-vis Pakistan and the unfriendly posturing on the part of India (with the two having entered into a formal strategic partnership agreement) will tax the imagination and sagacity of our helmsmen. As for USA, a new kind of relationship will have to be hammered out considering the perceptions both countries have of each other - double dealings and smart manoeuvrings, giving rise to mistrust and misunderstandings.

Internally, terrorism, forging a new relationship with militants in Fata, winning over the alienated Baloch leadership, a firm handling of the situation in Karachi (including taking care of political parties’ armed wings), as well as accelerating energy-enhancing schemes, would be high priority tasks for the new administration.  Much will depend on how strong and stable the new government will be. This, in turn, will be determined by the numbers in the National Assembly and whether Parliament is hung or the government is self-standing.

Last but not the least, it would be unrealistic to underestimate the possibility of Machiavellian capabilities (call them tricks if you will) of our own Mr Zardari and the mileage the MQM chief’s tested skills can draw (considering PPP’s 44 Senators and Altaf Hussian’s hold on Karachi). One has to remember that Zardari will remain with us as President for months after the current elections and is bound to play an important role in determining which of the political parties should initially be invited to make a coalition government if none of the parties manage to get a majority of seats in the National Assembly.

All in all, this election will determine, to a large extent, how democracy is to fare in this benighted country and how it takes to democratic norms and ways.

The writer is an ex-federal secretary and ambassador, and a freelance political and international relations analyst.