NEW DELHI: As Pakistan heads to the polls today, all eyes are on cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, whose Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf is expected to emerge as the single largest party albeit shy of a clear majority.

Khan, whose foray into politics has thus far failed to translate into an electoral victory for his party, is the biggest beneficiary of a corruption scandal that gripped Pakistan’s ruling party -- the Pakistan Muslim League -- and saw its leader and former Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, being sentenced to a ten year jail term. The PML remains a major player with Nawaz’s brother Shehbaz Sharif at the helm, but the corruption scandals may have dealt it a severe electoral blow. The Pakistan Peoples Party, headed by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, son of the assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, is also in the fray, but the fight remains largely between Khan’s PTI and Sharif’s PML.

The significance of the elections in Pakistan is that if successful, they will mark the second time a civilian government has handed power to another since the country's independence in 1947. Khan, who has seen seen a transformation from a star cricketer and regular face on the European party circuit to a pious politician, has suddenly emerged as the electoral favourite, as polls indicate that he may have the best shot at forming the government.

As is often the case in Pakistan, the elections are anything but straightforward, and the democratic process is fraught with a number of complicating factors. First and foremost is of course the role of the all powerful military. The military has directly ruled Pakistan through various coups for nearly half of the country’s post-independence history, and even when a civilian government has been in power, the military has retained its enormous influence.

Allegations have emerged that this election, the military is backing Khan and the PTI. The military has been accused of singling out candidates who are out of its favour, silencing major media outlets and persecuting peaceful political movements. The military’s perceived interference in the election has been described as a “soft coup” with Khan emerging as the favoured candidate. Nawaz Sharif fell out of favour with the military early on in his tenure as, under immense international pressure, he tried to assert control over Pakistan’s defence and foreign policy -- widely seen as the military’s exclusive domain. The PML has accused the military of interfering in the current election and sidelining and disqualifying its top candidates by pressurising the country’s top courts, including the sentencing of Nawaz Sharif.

A top Pakistani judge, Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui, made a public speech accusing the army of meddling in the judiciary and exerting pressure leading to rulings against the Sharif family.

Khan, on his part, has maintained good relations with the military, going as far as to credit the institution with protecting the country. Khan seems to have courted additional favour from the military for hitting out at the United States for the war in Afghanistan, and publicly stating that the Taliban’s fight back is justified. The Pakistani military, particularly its intelligence wing ISI, has been accused of shielding and protecting militants so as to further insurgency across the border -- in Afghanistan and also in India. Although Pakistan denies the allegation, the distinction between “good Taliban” and “bad Taliban” and the military’s cultivation of the former is a charge that has stuck. “Good Taliban” has come to refer to militants who are active across the border, and “bad Taliban” encompasses militants who are fighting the Pakistani state, most notably, the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan.

Khan, however, has denied the charge that the PTI is receiving favours from the army. Khan has said that although he maintains good relations with the army, the association ends there. If Khan wins the election, it is likely that the military will curb the new government’s ability to shape defence and foreign policy, thereby complicating Pakistan’s international standing.

Additionally, if the polls are right and Khan fails to win a clear majority, the PTI will need to string together a coalition of smaller parties to form the government. The second complicating factor in the current election stems from this possible outcome. A number of the smaller parties represent the more hardline, Islamist positions in Pakistan. If the PTI needs to patch together a coalition, it may have to bring these smaller hardline parties into government, thereby legitimising their politics.

At the time of writing, 2008 Mumbai terror blast accused Hafiz Saeed who has a $10 million bounty on his head, was seen casting his vote in Lahore, backing candidates of the Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek party, who campaigned under posters featuring his face. Saeed had floated his own political party, the Milli Muslim League, which -- after huge international controversy -- was banned from contesting.

The Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek party is just one amongst a number of ultra Islamist groups contesting the polls, which seem to be the corollary of the military’s quest to mainstream armed Islamists and other extremists.

And even if these parties do not make it into government, their presence in the electoral process has served its purpose of shifting the discourse to a more hardline stance. Attacks on mainstream politicians for their lack of piety or patriotism is central to the current electoral discourse, with the PML being at the receiving end of a majority of the vitriol. The party has been accused for straying away from Islamist values, and leading Pakistan down a western inspired path.

Other hardline issues have made it to mainstream politics, with, for instance, the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan campaigning openly under the electoral cry, “death to blasphemers.” The party has more than 500 candidates in the fray.

Imran Khan seems to have fallen prey to the discourse, invoking hardline issues like blasphemy to get votes for his party. As such, the hateful vitriol targeted at the country’s minorities has gone from being a fringe element of Pakistan’s politics to a central component of the new mainstream political discourse.

The run up to the elections has also seen a surge of violence, with militants targeting electoral rallies and campaigns of more secular politicians. One such incident was an attack on Awami National Party politician Haroon Bilour, with the TTP openly claiming responsibility and admitting that the target was Bilour. Separately, a Labaik supporter shot and wounded then-Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal as he left a meeting, telling interrogators that Iqbal was targeted for being a blasphemer.

While Tehreek-e-Labaik is a registered party, this election includes candidates from banned outfits. While the Milli Muslim League was banned, the same candidates are contesting under the Allahu Akbar Tehreek. Other extremist movements who have candidates in the fray include Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamaat, a party which has ties with Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. ASWJ leader Muhammad Ahmed Ludhianvi’s name in fact was removed recently from the terror watch list.

All in all, while Khan might emerge as a beneficiary of an electoral process fraught with complications and be awarded the crown as Pakistan’s first cricketer-turned-politician, the cost this election is in the form of legitimacy accorded to hardline Islamist groups who are now firmly part of the mainstream political system.