The man tipped to win is the former prime minister, Mian Mohammed Nawaz Sharif, 47, who is likely to need a coalition in order to set up a government. Analysts predict that the turnout will be poor, since voters will not have the usual financial incentives under new regulations.
At rallies for Nawaz Sharif, the Pakistan Muslim League candidate, a caged lion cub would sometimes be let out and led through the crowds. Any new prime minister will be similarly shackled by President Farooq Leghari and his ten-member Council for Defence and National Security. Policy decisions must be reviewed by military chiefs of staff, thus formalising the army's role which has been a constant in modern Pakistan.
Benazir Bhutto, the premier ousted by Mr Leghari in November, accused the President of being a "turncoat and an opportunist who wants a docile prime minister. He would like to rig these elections and he has 26 computers in the Presidency already hooked up to major polling stations". From her Larkana stronghold, the Pakistan People's Party leader asserted that if today's returns were radically different from her narrow victory in 1993, she would not accept them. She said that results in 63 of the 207 constituencies would be suspect.
Foreign observers are monitoring today's elections, but the likelihood of widespread voting fraud also worries the former cricketing hero, Imran Khan, a first timer with his untested party, Tehreek-i-Insaaf (Movement for Justice). "It's not going to be a free and fair election," he said yesterday, admitting that he had never before even cast a vote. "On polling day, there are physical threats from various mafias. And we have no money to transport voters to the polls."
Mr Khan set a new agenda for reform in these elections with his idealistic Islamic utopianism, modelled roughly on Malaysia. His calls for a clean- up were echoed by his main rivals, even though both have been accused of large-scale corruption. By the end of five months on the campaign trail, with only a week off for the birth of his son, Mr Khan's speech delivery has become forceful. "If we do get into Parliament, we will be the best opposition," he said. "The two other parties are declining, but whatever our result is, we have a basis for the future."
Mr Khan might link up with independent religious parties. He is acceptable to fundamentalists because of his commitment to Sharia law. If his Tehreek- i-Insaaf manifesto were to be strictly followed, he says both his opponents in this election would be hanged as thieves.