By Rashid Khattak

For Pakistanis in Philadelphia and abroad, Saturday's election is seen as a significant step for the future of democracy there. This is the first time in Pakistan's 66-year history that a democratically elected government is completing its five-year term and has scheduled elections.

Mohammad Tariq, a 40-year-old Philly cabdriver from Pakistan, says the continuity that results from the democratic process is a must for honest politicians to emerge and for the country to develop. Elections work like a filter, he says, and the process ensures that issues like corruption and bad governance will be resolved over time.

Despite the threats posed to the electoral process and politicians by militant groups such as Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, Tariq says that elections can be held if the establishment wants to do so. While the Taliban threatens to disrupt elections in the hopes of depriving Pakistanis of education and progress, he hopes that real religious scholars will come forward to free Islam from such people.

In Saturday's election, about 4,600 candidates, representing 250 political parties, are competing for 272 seats of the National Assembly, the lower house of the Pakistani parliament. (Fifty seats are reserved for women, and 10 for non-Muslims.)

Unlike in past elections, no major alliance or electoral adjustment has been made by the political parties. Major parties - including the Pakistan People's Party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (Pakistan Movement for Justice), United National Movement, Awami National Party, and Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party - are contesting the election separately, though there are alliances at the local level.

Some candidates are calling for the restoration of peace, the revival of the economy, and job creation. Other candidates, from right-wing religious parties, are promising voters that they will implement Islamic law in the country if they come to power.

The Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf is led by a cricketer turned politician, Imran Khan, who is wooing the country's youth with the promise of change if he and his party are elected.

Mohammad Imran, 45, of Philadelphia, is also concerned about the future of his country of origin, but, like many other Pakistanis who live abroad, he is not optimistic that any "immediate" positive change will take place after Saturday's election.

To Imran, who has lived in Philadelphia for 24 years, the elections are just a means of forming another government. However, he still wishes he could vote. (Pakistan's high court has directed the electoral commission to make arrangements for overseas Pakistanis to vote in the next election, but not Saturday's.)

Elections, Imran believes, are not enough. "It is the people who bring change," he says. "They can change their country if they begin to honor the law and get rid of corruption."

And change is exactly what Pakistanis want, according to one candidate.

Mukhtar Yousafzai is running for a National Assembly seat from Swat, once a stronghold of the Taliban in Pakistan. He emphasizes that the people want democracy.

"People attend election rallies . . . in large numbers despite the fact that militants are targeting such gatherings frequently," he says in a telephone interview.

There is no sympathy for the Taliban, he reports. "People spend money by arranging meetings and rallies for us, as they are fed up with militants," Yousafzai says.

He blames the mainstream political parties of Pakistan for leaving the door open to the Taliban. It will be up to the next government, he says, to resolve the issue of militancy and enforce the law.

Similarly, Tariq Aziz, an Islamabad-based journalist, calls the elections an avenue of possibilities.

"The so-called liberal parties are being pushed toward the wall in three provinces - Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Sindh, and Balochistan - of the country. Radical elements are being promoted," he says. "But, despite all these odds, democracy is the only hope for this country."

Aziz predicts that the new government will be a weak one. However, he also insists that all players are cautious in the presence of an active judiciary and media in Pakistan. He underlines the importance of the elections, but warns of the consequences of polarization and the threat posed by militants.

However, Salman, a 23-year-old Pakistani American who came to Philly a few years ago, is optimistic. He discounts the threats aimed at keeping people from going to polling stations.

"People are enthusiastic and want to bring a change with the help of their vote," he says. "They don't pay any heed to the warnings issued by Taliban."

Rashid Khattak, a senior sub-editor with the daily Dawn in Pakistan, is currently working at The Inquirer as a fellow with the U.S.-Pakistan Professional Partnership in Journalism. E-mail him at rfarooq@phillynews.com.