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Pakistan has seen its share of wild political events over the years: military coups, uprisings against dictators, even the occasional flash of democracy. But that vital and troubled U.S. ally, that giant country in South Asia, has never seen this: An elected government has finished a full term, and is about to be replaced by another elected government in elections this weekend - a semblance of normal democracy.
There's intense interest in the political campaign, and yet the campaigning itself has been muted for reasons we'll discuss with NPR's Julie McCarthy. She's in Lahore, Pakistan. Hi, Julie.
JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Hi.
INSKEEP: So why has the campaign been muted?
MCCARTHY: Well, the campaign is muted because of militant attacks that have really had a significant impact on this campaign. The threat of attacks has shut down public rallies for secular parties, including the Pakistan People's Party, which remarkably has all but receded from the landscape here.
INSKEEP: Oh, these are the guys who were governing for the last five years, and they can't campaign.
MCCARTHY: Exactly. And this week, on top of the secular parties being struck, the Taliban turned its sites on a well-known religious party. So all of this has people feeling that no one is immune from their attacks at this point.
The Taliban have struck mostly in the Northwest Frontier region of the country. But, Steve, Karachi - a city you know well - their rival parties, along with militants, have been killing candidates of each others parties and attacking their offices. In Baluchistan, candidates told us last week in Quetta that they weren't waging a campaign, but rather a war, they feel so besieged. So, yes, violence is having an effect.
INSKEEP: And yet it seems there are some people who are able to campaign. I follow the Twitter feed of Imran Khan, this politician who's got a relatively new party and is getting a lot of attention. And he sends out pictures of huge rallies, thousands of people going to hear him speak.
MCCARTHY: Yes. In fact, the Taliban said they will refrain from hitting the likes of this cricket-player-turned-politician, Imran Khan. He prefers to talk rather than fight the militants, which may provide him some cover. But, indeed, Khan has drawn huge crowds. He ended his campaign with a startling event last night. He fell off of a stage. He was hospitalized with skull and back injuries after falling. He's reported to have lost a lot of blood, but he is in stable condition.
He spent the night in a hospital - a hospital, in fact, that he founded. And from that hospital bed, he told reporters: I did what I could in this campaign.
The doctors ordered him to rest for several weeks, but he says he's determined to address - by telephone, anyway - a final rally of the campaign. He has kept up a punishing schedule. At age 60, he's still in top condition, this former athlete. And it helped him through this campaign that's been physically and mentally grueling for everyone in the race, Steve.
Candidates in Pakistan have the psychological burden of not knowing, literally, whether they would survive, because of there's been so much violence. And Geo TV reported that Khan himself was wearing a bulletproof vest when he fell last night.
INSKEEP: So will the violence suppress the turnout this weekend?
MCCARTHY: Well, thousands of polling stations have been designated sensitive. And, of course, violence requires courage to go to the polls in many of these places. But very few parties are boycotting this election compared to five years ago. Four thousand candidates - a record number - are contesting seats for the National Assembly.
And despite the violence, Steve, the political campaign in Karachi that I saw was boisterous and lively. Here in the Punjab, which has been untouched by bloodshed so far, the rallies have drawn huge crowds for the former two-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan. There is genuine excitement in this race for what will be the first transfer of one elected government to another, after the vote on Saturday. And many expect that the voter turnout will also reflect that.
INSKEEP: OK. So we have this mixture of excitement and fear. So who's the favorite to win, Julie McCarthy?
MCCARTHY: Well, many analysts, most of them say this is Nawaz Sharif's race to lose - the former two-time prime minister. But many longtime observers also say they've never seen a race that's this wide open. It's tough to predict.
INSKEEP: NPR'S Julie McCarthy is in Lahore, Pakistan. Pakistan is holding an election this weekend. Julie, thanks very much.
MCCARTHY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.