Pakistan elections 2018: the main players
The general elections on July 25 come after a brief but acrimonious campaign, complicated by a string of attacks of late.
The election represents only the second democratic transition in a country ruled by the military for roughly half its history, and is considered a vital step for Pakistan, with its turbulent past.
The main players in the polls include two who cannot even hold political office — former premier Nawaz Sharif, and the military — as well as the leaders of the three main parties.
A former World Cup cricket hero turned politician, Khan has become the main opposition leader in recent years and makes no secret of his ambition to become prime minister.
Known mainly in the West as a talented sportsman and infamous playboy, he presents a significantly more conservative and devout face to Muslim Pakistan.
His Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, founded in 1996, has governed Khyber Pakhtunkhwa but long had to settle for a handful of seats nationally.
The fall of Sharif and the PML-N’s floundering campaign represents his best chance yet at the leadership, even if an outright majority remains uncertain.
Critics consider him unfit for office. Some slam him for allegedly keeping a soft corner for the Taliban and attack his repeated calls for talks with violent insurgent groups.
Nawaz’s younger and less charismatic brother, Shahbaz became president of the PML-N after his elder sibling was ousted, and is theoretically leading the party into the vote.
His quieter style is being overshadowed by his brother’s loud quarrel with the military. But he occupies a key position in politics, having spent more than 10 years as chief minister of Punjab province, which represents over half the country’s population of 207 million.
Shahbaz, also an influential businessman, is reputedly less stubborn and therefore more acceptable to the establishment than Nawaz or his anointed political heir, daughter Maryam, who has also been jailed for corruption.
There has long been speculation that the two brothers have clashed over their political differences, but they have never corroborated the claims.
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari
His mother Benazir Bhutto, the first woman to lead a Muslim country, was assassinated in 2007. His grandfather Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, also a prime minister of Pakistan, was hanged in 1979.
At 29, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has made a political debut and the chance of election victory for his Pakistan Peoples Party is yet to be seen — though he could become kingmaker by joining forces with the PML-N or PTI, if either fail to win an outright majority.
The task would be difficult for the scion of a family who once dominated Pakistani politics but whose party is now in decline, even challenged in their stronghold in Sindh.
His father, Asif Ali Zardari, being alleged over numerous accusations of corruption, has previously been president of the country from 2008 to 2013. There is speculation he could seek the post again — or demand other concessions — in any coalition deal.
Sharif was thrice prime minister but has never completed a term, his latest ending when he was ousted by the Supreme Court last year and banned from politics for life over corruption.
The saga reached its peak earlier this month, when he was sentenced in absentia to 10 years in prison. Sharif spectacularly returned to Pakistan from London a week later and was arrested.
Sharif claims he is being targeted by the establishment. Analysts say he has returned to fight for his political life, as his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party stumbles in the campaign.
His current dispute with the establishment — with which he was once close — is largely attributed to his desire to shift power to the civilian government, and to seek warmer diplomatic relations with arch-rival India.
The army, perceived as the country’s strongest institution, has ruled Pakistan for roughly half its nearly 71-year history, and is widely believed to control foreign and defence policy.
In the face of suspicions by activists and a few political groups, the army has denied the claims and says it is playing “no direct role” in the election.