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Politics

Five things to know about Pakistan's general election

Prospect of growing military influence casts shadow over fragile democracy

TOKYO -- The polls opened on Wednesday for Pakistan's general election, which will choose a new prime minister following the ouster of Nawaz Sharif on charges of corruption last July. 

The country is currently run by a caretaker prime minister, and the outcome of the election is expected to have broad implications for democracy in Pakistan, as well as relations with its two neighbors -- India and China.

Here are the five things you need to know:

What's at stake?

Elections are being held for the 342-seat National Assembly, or the lower house of the federal parliament. Seventy seats are reserved for women and minority groups, and there are more than 105 million eligible voters.

The country has experienced military rule for roughly half of its 70-year history, and there are mounting allegations that the armed forces have been exerting their influence over Wednesday's vote, raising concerns over the legitimacy of the outcome and a potential power vacuum that could lead to a return to authoritarian rule.

Who are the main contenders?

The election is being fought out between the two main parties. The incumbent Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz is seeking a new mandate under leader Shehbaz Sharif, the younger brother of Nawaz Sharif. 

The challenger is Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or Pakistan Justice Movement, led by Imran Khan, a former cricketer who captained the national team to victory in the World Cup. Many observers have commented that PTI is being supported by the country's security establishment behind the scenes.

What does the military want?

The military is allegedly opposed to Sharif's peace initiatives, but Khan denies any collusion with the armed forces. A victory for PTI could set up a weak civilian government that opens the door to a greater role for the army.

What would be the diplomatic impact of the election?

A PTI victory could also have ramifications for Pakistan's relations with India, which have undergone relative improvement in recent years.

The current government has pursued economic development with aid from Beijing, resulting in the construction of an overhead train line and the development of an economic corridor with China. But it has also overseen a sharp increase in imports and a deterioration of the country's balance of payments.

Under Sharif, Islamabad sought rapprochement with New Delhi, hosting Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Lahore in 2015 in what was the first visit to Pakistan by an Indian leader in about 12 years. The security establishment, however, did not look on this favorably.

If a change of government did usher in greater military influence, ties with India could suffer.

Will the election help Pakistan deal with its economic crisis?

No matter who wins, the next leader will face considerable challenges.

To stave off a balance-of-payment crisis, the central bank recently raised interest rates by 100 basis points to 7.5%. That followed a devaluation of the Pakistani rupee by approximately 4% in June. 

But many see these measures as insufficient and expect the country to seek a second bailout from the International Monetary Fund since 2013.

Others see greater dependence on China as more likely. 

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