After sustaining a full-term democratic government for the first time, Pakistan is tantalisingly close to conducting an unprecedented free and fair general election on May 11, writes Tom Hussain
Judgement day dawns in Pakistan
Since March, Pakistan has undergone the smoothest of transfers of power.
For five years, Asif Ali Zardari, the country's controversial president, has piloted a parliamentary conglomerate of moderate political parties through the stormiest of waters - notably a Taliban insurgency that in 2009 was practically knocking at the door of the capital, Islamabad.
Throughout, Zardari's top priority has been the completion of tenure by Pakistan's fifth elected parliament, and the seamless transition to a sixth.
His worst-case scenario: the failure of another democratic experiment, creating room for intervention by the overbearing military. Various juntas have ruled the country for half its 65-year existence, most recently General Pervez Musharraf for eight years up to the 2008 election.
Under intense scrutiny from the media and the Supreme Court, politicians have managed to keep their bickering within reasonable parameters. And as parliament's tenure drew to a close, Zardari played an unexpected but very well received hand: the government's nominee for the job of chief election commissioner was Fakhruddin G Ibrahim, an ex-judge popular for making a career out of resigning from top posts on matters of principle. The opposition instantly agreed.
That consensus appointment injected unprecedented credibility into the democratic process, public faith in which had been flagging because of the very poor governance of the outgoing administration, led by Zardari's Pakistan People's Party (PPP).
The powerful army chief, Gen Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, a brooding man of few well-chosen words, also accepted the fait accompli without complaint.
The country's intensely competitive broadcast news media have closed ranks to form a final line of oversight, pausing their seemingly perennial witch hunt of Zardari to give him his due for strengthening the constitution through a series of amendments adopted by parliament since 2008.
The power of the president to dismiss elected governments was given up, and all his other executive powers ceded to the prime minister and parliament. Zardari, as de facto chief of the PPP, the single largest party in parliament, empowered the political party chiefs, because it is they who negotiated alliances, and formed the federal and provincial governments.
Because of the amendments to the constitution, the balance of power in Pakistan has been altered considerably, and is no longer the preserve of a traditional troika comprised of the president, army chief and prime minister. The list of power players has been extended to include the political party chiefs, judiciary, media, and the provincial governments.
When, in March, the outgoing government and opposition could not agree on a caretaker prime minister, they toed the constitutional line and surrendered the decision to the election commissioner. Ibrahim appointed Mir Hazar Khan Khoso, like himself an ex-judge in his 80s. His job description: to facilitate the decisions of the election commission to ensure a free, fair and transparent election. Period.
Of Pakistan's four provincial governments, the three previously held by the PPP and its allies were entrusted to yet more retired judges. The exception was Punjab, the most populous province, previously governed by the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party. Its caretaker is an outspoken political commentator, Najam Sethi, reflecting the power of the broadcast media. A newspaper's editor-in-chief, Arif Nizami, has been made a federal minister, while at least two other television personalities were offered caretaker jobs but declined.
They will hold the administrative reins of Pakistan until the result of the May 11 election is announced and a new is government formed - a process that would probably drag into June.
Until the new government takes its seat, real power will reside with Fakhru Bhai, as the chief election commissioner, Fakhruddin Ibrahim, is affectionately known. He has been armed with constitutional teeth by the Supreme Court, and by inference, is answerable only to it.
The Supreme Court, with the support of the general public, media and the two main opposition parties, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf, freed itself from political interference three years ago.
It has since established itself as the popularly overzealous guardian of the constitution, going as far as to sack the prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, for contempt of court last year for refusing to initiate legal proceedings against Zardari for corruption allegations dating back to the 1990s.
The court refused to accept international treaties and globally accepted legal precedents that guarantee heads of state enjoy immunity from prosecution for as long as they hold office.
It has since launched proceedings against Gilani's successor, Raja Pervez Ashraf, the outgoing prime minister. Pakistan's Supreme Court judges tend to take the letter and verse of the constitution quite literally.
They have ordered election commission officials, tasked with the scrutiny of election nomination papers, to enforce constitutional provisions requiring candidates to be of sound moral character and, where applicable, practising Muslims.
That has led to an outcry from politicians and liberal media personalities, and generated a huge amount of mirth among the electorate. Some candidates have been made to demonstrate their knowledge of Islam by reciting certain prayers, many of which most Pakistani Muslims would not be able to recall from memory.
One bearded candidate in the north-west tribal areas emerged victorious after a successful recitation to tell television news teams: "I probably would not have been able to answer questions on any other topic, but I don't lag in knowledge of Islam!"
Elsewhere in the country, others were quizzed about the birth anniversary of Pakistan's founding father, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, and asked to sing the national anthem - and got it wrong. Predictably, there have been many instances of televised egg-on-face.
More seriously, many other politicians, among them household names, have been disqualified from contesting the elections for lying about their education or holding dual nationality. Perhaps the most ridiculous case was that of Ayaz Amir, a sitting member of parliament and for 30 years the country's most respected English newspaper columnist, who fell victim to what he subsequently described as the "under-education" of a junior judge. The decision was overturned upon appeal to the high court.
Critics counter that the Supreme Court is interfering in the democratic process, thereby violating the constitution it professes to protect. A former military dictator, Gen Mohammed Ziaul Haq, introduced the articles of the constitution under which candidates' moral fortitude is being scrutinised. His motive was to exclude his democratic rivals from participating in a 1985 election, which was subsequently boycotted.
Those articles were later enshrined by the Supreme Court that, at the time, was appointed by and in connivance with the martial law administration - something acknowledged by the modern-day free judiciary.
Pakistan has election fever, nonetheless.
Many registered voters who had become sceptical about the democratic process, because of poor governance, corruption and bickering have had their faith restored both by the zealousness of the judiciary and chief election commissioner and, improbably, by the unexpected maturity displayed by the political parties in facilitating neutral caretakers.
The noisy entry of a third viable national party, the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI) led by World Cup-winning cricket team skipper Imran Khan, is another shot of adrenalin, because it is mobilising the anti-status quo vote, particularly among young people and women.
Irrespective of the chief election commissioner's popularity and powers, he faces the unenviable - even unviable, many commentators argue - task of ensuring Pakistan's 10th general election, unlike the previous nine, is not manipulated to one extent or another by the military, president, and/or others.
The 1990 election was proven rigged in a case heard by the Supreme Court last year. In 2011, the court struck a staggering 40 million bogus votes - more or less half the total - from the electoral rolls.
During a subsequent survey to verify registered voters, election commission officials knocked at the door of this correspondent and spoke to Mrs Sehrish Hussain. The surveyors wheeled off names from a list of voters, registered to the Islamabad address. She had never heard of two people, impostors
who had voted in the 2002 and 2008 elections conducted by the Musharraf junta. They had the same surname as the resident family, so as to appear as brothers living in a traditional joint-family arrangement.
But, in the run-up to polling on May 11, the election commissioner and the 700,000 Pakistani officials placed at his disposal also have to contend with the fact that two of the country's four provinces are at war.
Like its Al Qaeda cohorts elsewhere in the Muslim world, the Pakistani Taliban has seized upon the elections as an opportunity to establish that, while diminished by three years of counterterrorism operations, it remains a potent threat.
Already, the government has declared that more than 70 per cent of polling stations in the north-west Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province and adjacent tribal areas bordering Afghanistan are at risk of attack, and will have to be guarded by the army.
The Taliban has also threatened the lives of mainstream political party leaders, raising the horrific spectre of their assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the former two-time prime minister, in Rawalpindi in December 2007.
The vast south-west province of Balochistan is as big a problem, if not bigger. Ethnic Baloch separatists have been waging an insurgency there since 2004, engaging 60,000 paramilitary troops. In practice, it has been a dirty war with the military's intelligence agencies and pro-government tribal militias, fought much like the wars of yesteryear's Latin America.
Most of the province is a no-go area for non-residents, and a nightmare setting for a general election. However, the Supreme Court chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, is from Balochistan, and has made no secret of his disapproval of the intelligence agencies' tactics there, summoning them to his courtroom many times in the last two years - an unprecedented act of accountability in Pakistan.
Its actions started a national debate in the media that changed mainstream public perception of the insurgency. In turn, the opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, a former two-time prime minister, has adopted the Balochistan cause as his own, building the pressure on the military to leave the matter to civilians to settle.
The election could, possibly, prove to be the requisite catalyst. Akhtar Mengal, a non-militant separatist, has returned from exile in the UAE and, after personal assurances from the chief election commissioner, is contesting the elections, as are other parties affiliated by blood relations to the three main militant separatist factions.
Whether they can persuade disaffected Baloch to vote or not remains to be seen.
The consensus among the armies of Pakistani journalists deputed to cover the elections - among them analysts who have been at it since the 1970s - is that the election will emphasise the split mandate seen at the 2008 elections.
Generally, a swing against the outgoing PPP administration, loyal to Zardari, is a certainty. The extent of that swing, and what that will mean in terms of the emerging political power play, is still unclear, obviously.
Ultimately, it is a game of 272 directly elected seats in the national assembly, the popularly elected chamber of Pakistan's parliament, so first-past-the-post means 137 constituencies.
None of the political parties suffer from the delusion that they can do that single-handedly.
The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), the government-in-waiting, is based in Punjab province and has little presence in Balochistan or the southern Sindh province. Its leader Nawaz Sharif, who hopes to become prime minister for a third time (a first), is not attempting to contest every constituency.
Rather, he is focused on winning 114 seats in the party's stamping grounds: north and central Punjab, and in Hazara, a part of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province populated mostly by ethnic Punjabis.
It also stands to win up to half of the 43 seats in southern Punjab, but could also run in third behind the PPP and PTI.
Punjab is key to the overall outcome of the election, because it accounts for about half of Pakistan's estimated population of 180 million, and that is reflected more or less in the make up of the national assembly.
But Sharif has good reason to be worried about competition from Imran Khan's PTI, which appeals to the same kind of voters, particularly in urban centres, where one-third of the national population resides.
Many commentators believe Khan's party could take 30 seats, especially if he springs surprises in Punjab. It is generally accepted that Khan will do best in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and the tribal areas - something that could prompt the PML-N to form an electoral alliance there with the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI), a party of cleric-politicians.
Either way, Khan has added a tantalising element of unpredictability in the two northern provinces.
The mix in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa is further enriched by the Awami National Party, an ethnic Pashtun nationalist party that led the outgoing provincial administration, in alliance with the PPP, which came in second in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa in the 2008 elections.
Elsewhere, traditional voting patterns are expected to persist. In southern Sindh province, the rural seats, with a few exceptions, belong to the PPP, not least because Zardari's Bhutto in-laws are from there. Likewise, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) party would retain its stranglehold over Karachi and the province's urban centres with the votes of the majority population of Urdu-speaking migrants from India, or mohajir.
Similarly, Balochistan would be divided between ethnic Baloch and Pashtun areas, with the Baloch voting along tribal loyalty lines in their areas, and the Pashtun polling either for cleric-politicians or the PML-N (or both, if an alliance is formed, as may be the case in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa) in theirs.
That confoundedly complex mixture is generally predicted to translate into a PML-N government, built in alliance with the cleric-politicians of the JUI, and independents and minor parties from the north-west tribal areas and Balochistan. They would probably also form provincial governments in Punjab and Balochistan. Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa will be too fragmented to significantly alter that balance.
Sindh will stay with the PPP, with or without support from the MQM, which may or not support a PML-N federal government. The PPP's best hope is that it takes more than half of the 43 seats in south Punjab, where its popularity has been boosted because of its proposal to form a split-away province there.
The general election, in turn, would largely determine the outcome of a wider transfer of power that will play out during 2013.
After two three-year stints as army chief, Gen Kayani is due for retirement at the end of the year. His potential successors, naturally, are preoccupied with the elections because parliament, under judicial and media scrutiny, would determine who the next chief is.
Kayani is not the only one on the way out. The chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, is also due to retire at the end of the year. Reforms enacted by the last parliament effectively ensure another constitutional zealot will be his successor.
Zardari might just outlast them both. The parliament votes for a new president in September. In all, 442 votes would be cast: 342 members of the national assembly (272 directly elected seats plus reserved seats for women, minorities and professionals), and 100 seats in the Senate, where the provinces are equally represented.
Zardari's PPP and allies hold sway in the Senate. His relationships with political party chiefs are far better than those of Nawaz Sharif. And he has won acknowledgement for his statecraft - even from his harshest critics, who have been reduced to backhanded compliments, like: Zardari, sab par bhari!
"Zardari outweighs all".
Tom Hussain is a journalist and broadcaster based in Pakistan, and has written for The National since 2008.