In the West the focus has been on those two habitues of the gossip columns, Benazir Bhutto and Imran Khan, but the winner is expected to be the colourless Nawaz Sharif, leader of the conservative Muslim League, who may become prime minister on a voter turnout as low as 20 per cent. Politics has always been a game for the elite few in Pakistan, but even the small proportion of the 130 million population with time to spare from the struggle for existence has lost faith in the ability of politicians to affect people's daily lives.
Outside the wealthy enclaves of Clifton in Karachi or Gulberg in Lahore, politics consists not of the race for National Assembly seats and places in the Cabinet, but of communal tensions and the frequently bloody struggle for followers and money among a host of religious parties and factions. Karachi, Pakistan's biggest city, has been brought to a state of virtual civil war by fighting between ethnic groups, between police and criminals, and, most recently, between Sunni and Shia Muslims.
"Shias are infidels, and their literature is filth," said Omar,. a 28- year-old Sunni student, at a small mosque in squalid North Karachi. He advocates a jihad, or holy war. "They are only 2 per cent of the population, but they are given too much freedom."
Shia militants are equally eager to fight. "We are forced to pray in Sunni mosques, our religious processions are attacked and our people killed in their mosques," says an activist of a Shia party. Omar retorts: "They should be locked up in their houses and not let out."
Two years ago, seven Sunni militants tried to provoke a holy war in Karachi by raiding Shia mosques, forcing 20 worshippers to kneel facing the wall and mowing them down. Senior clerics on both sides managed to preserve the peace in the wake of the killings, so the gunmen turned on their own side. In an attempt to set the sects against each other, they forced their way into a Sunni house and shot dead all the male members of the two families living there.
Today all seven men are on death row, but have no regrets. "We will go straight to heaven," one killer said, after describing for investigators how he spared one young boy after a bullet grazed the child's head. Some of the victims were teenagers. So were some of the murderers.
The culture of intolerance starts young. At small madrassahs (religious schools) across the country, students, some as young as five, are taught to memorise the Koran and given religious tracts to study for hours every day. The time for secular education is limited; visiting Shia and Sunni clerics harangue pupils, inciting them to hatred and, inevitably, to violence.
The madrassahs gave birth to the conquering Taliban movement in Afghanistan, and even though the extremists have failed to convert their own countrymen to their brand of Islam, the violence they preach and practise has kept Pakistan chronically unstable. Successive governments have pandered to the zealots or tried haphazardly to crack down on them, but have never been secure enough to eliminate them.
The basis for the formation of Pakistan in 1947 was Islam, but the founder of the nation, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, also promised secularism and freedom of worship to minorities. That confusion has bedevilled the country ever since, according to Ghazi Salahuddin, a political analyst: "For 50 years our rulers have been trying to uphold two contradictory opinions at the same time."
The result is that in a nation where every party defines itself as Islamic, those near the centre are constantly vulnerable to accusations from hardliners that they are betraying Islam. The leaders of Mr Sharif's Muslim League are as secular as British Conservatives, but they fear being outflanked by fundamentalist parties such as Jamaat-e-Islami. It is the largest of an array of groups which never do well at the polls (Jamaat is boycotting this election), but whose activists are always ready to take to the streets. Last year Jamaat-e-Islami virtually paralysed Ms Bhutto's government by staging protest marches on the capital, Islamabad.
The religious parties in their turn try, not always successfully, to steer clear of the Shia and Sunni factions and their bloodletting. Last month the head of an extremist Sunni party and at least 27 others were killed when a bomb exploded outside a Lahore court, where he and his deputy faced charges of having ordered the deaths of Shia leaders.
Over the past five years several hundred people have been killed in such incidents, and there is little the police or paramilitary troops can do except mop up as best they can. The Shias deny being funded by the Iranian authorities, just as the Sunnis disclaim receiving money from the government of Saudi Arabia, but there is no lack of private support, as shown by the hundreds of religious schools and mosques which dot the country. In one poor area of Karachi, residents complain that there are three schools, no hospitals and over 150 mosques.
For people caught up in the turf battles among extremists, a figure such as Imran Khan appears impossibly distant from their problems. The cricketing hero turned politician is expected to be humiliated in tomorrow's vote - not because of his marriage to Jemima Goldsmith or the paternity claim made against him by a former lover, Sita White, but because his insistence that an Islamic government is the solution to all that ails Pakistan seems at best an irrelevance.Reuse content