“FOR the first time in our history, fair elections are going to be held,” insisted Fawad Chaudhry, a spokesman for the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, this week. Unfortunately, this view is not universally held. The national and state elections on July 25th, in which 100m people are registered to vote, should mark a further stage in the country’s progress towards democracy, for the transfer of power thereafter will be only the second from one civilian government to another in the country’s seven decades of coup-studded history. But the poll takes place amid accusations that the powerful military establishment is tilting the field in favour of the PTI and its leader, a former cricket star, Imran Khan (pictured, on the flag).

There is another dark cloud over the campaign: violence. On July 13th a suicide-bomber, alleged to have links with Islamic State, killed 149 people in an attack on a rally in Mastung, a town in the south-western province of Balochistan. It was the country’s second-deadliest terrorist incident and a reminder that, despite a steep fall in the number of terrorist incidents in recent years, the menace remains.

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The bloodshed occurred on the day that the former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, flew from Britain to Pakistan to begin serving a ten-year prison term for corruption—a punishment that his supporters allege was orchestrated by the army. Reflecting the poisonous mood of the campaign, Mr Khan insinuated that Mr Sharif’s party, the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), was somehow responsible for the bloodshed in Mastung. “Beginning to wonder why whenever Nawaz Sharif is in trouble, there is increasing tension along Pakistan’s borders and a rise in terrorist attacks. Is it a mere coincidence?” Mr Khan asked in a tweet.

Mr Khan’s party has at least an even chance of winning, and he, at the age of 65, of becoming prime minister. What a change from the years leading up to the election in 2013, when the PTI had only one seat in parliament (Mr Khan’s own). Since then his promise of a naya (new), corruption-free Pakistan has enthralled young and middle-class voters. In 2013, in a poll deemed fair by international observers, the PTI took 34 seats in the 342-seat legislature, breaking the duopoly of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), then in power, and the PML-N. Mr Khan is credited with boosting turnout to a 30-year high of 55%.

How close he is to the generals is hard to gauge. Many Pakistanis still praise the “Charter for Democracy”, signed in 2006 by the PPP and PML-N, which appeared to put an end to years of competition between the two parties for the army’s favour. The document pledges that “no party shall solicit support of the military to come into power”. Mr Khan, however, declared it a sham. Within a year of the election in 2013, he was leading protests against the victorious PML-N, accusing it of having rigged the vote. Now the PML-N accuses Mr Khan of having played into the army’s hands with his successful request for the Supreme Court to disqualify Mr Sharif as prime minister because of his undeclared assets in London (it did so a year ago). The army had been chafing at Mr Sharif’s attempts to assert civilian supremacy.

The party’s spin

The PTI’s strategy in this election campaign is similar to the one it adopted five years ago. It emphasises Mr Khan’s celebrity as the “captain” who brought home the Cricket World Cup of 1992, as well as talking up his philanthropy. Mr Khan has established three world-class cancer hospitals in Pakistan. In addition, the PTI promises to secure the return from abroad of $2.3bn that Mr Khan claims was looted by the Sharif family from public coffers.

The Oxford-educated ex-cricketer’s tirades against corruption enjoy much appeal among educated, well-heeled Pakistanis. But Umair Javed, a columnist, says that Mr Khan’s attempts at populism are “just not popular enough” among those who are less well off. Ali Cheema, an academic, says his studies have found that ordinary Pakistanis are more interested in the economy, employment and public services than in Mr Khan’s anti-corruption platform. In these areas, the PML-N enjoys a good record. It has fulfilled its manifesto pledge to end electricity shortages. Its splurge of spending on infrastructure is popular (Mr Khan’s accusations that the PML-N has built too much fall flat). Since 2013 Mr Khan’s party has ruled effectively in the northern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. But its success there may not be sufficient to persuade many voters to desert the PML-N in the national polls.

So the PTI has focused on persuading PML-N legislators to switch sides and bring their voters with them. Mr Khan says that without “electables”, as such weathervane politicians are known, “you cannot contest the election”. Around a third of the PTI’s candidates are recent entrants from other parties. They have been wooed with little regard to their backgrounds. Some are precisely the kind of sleazy politician that Mr Khan has railed against. Opinion polls suggest the PTI is neck-and-neck with the PML-N, says Haris Gazdar, an academic. But the rush of strong candidates to the PTI may suggest that the political elite is putting its money on Mr Khan.

One reason for the defections may be pressure from the army. Several PML-N politicians have publicly claimed in recent weeks that they were pushed by Inter-Services Intelligence, an army-dominated agency, to change their affiliation. Mr Khan denies that the army is supporting him, but says it is the “only institution” that functions in Pakistan. Some of his supporters believe the army is influential. It is playing “a big role” in the election, says Zeeshan Haider, a PTI activist. “They will decide what set-up to bring in Pakistan.” The army denies all such allegations.

By returning to serve a sentence that he attributes to an army conspiracy, Mr Sharif has tried to persuade voters that the election is a choice between democracy (supposedly represented by his party) and military rule with the PTI as its front. On board Etihad Flight 243 to Lahore, the capital of Punjab province and his home town, he told The Economist that his battle with the “establishment”—the army, in other words—was “heading to its peak”. The authorities certainly fear as much. As Mr Sharif prepared to head home, almost 300 PML-N activists were detained to prevent them stirring up trouble. Around 10,000 policemen were deployed to block a procession led by his brother, Shahbaz, a former chief minister of Punjab, from reaching the airport. There Nawaz was transferred to another flight that took him to a prison near Islamabad. Shahbaz has since tried to mollify the army. In an interview with the Financial Times, he vowed to consult the army, when needed, should the PML-N win.

Fears that these elections may not be fair are justified. The work of a 100-strong EU monitoring team has been mysteriously obstructed. For the first time in four elections, the EU observers were able to start their work only a week before the vote. Previously they had started more than a month in advance. The army has also been more visible this time. In 2013, when terrorism was a bigger problem, it deployed 70,000 soldiers to polling stations. There will be 370,000 of them on July 25th. The Election Commission of Pakistan, which oversees the vote, has granted army officers the power of magistrates. This will give them control over proceedings in polling stations. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, a respected NGO, complained recently of “unabashed attempts to manipulate the outcome” of the vote.

If there is a hung parliament, which is likely, the PTI may be able to form a government with the support of smaller religious parties and independent legislators. The party may even have to approach its old foe, the PPP, which these days has little support outside the southern province of Sindh. That would require Mr Khan to swallow his words about not joining hands with the PPP’s chairman, Asif Ali Zardari. He has accused Mr Zardari, who was president between 2008 and 2013, of corruption. But the two parties did team up against the PML-N in senate elections in March. Mr Khan has proved flexible in his pursuit of power.

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