With election day almost upon us, and with Imran Khan certainly enjoying momentum, the outcome of the May 11 election is anybody’s guess. Will Pakistan’s next government be led by the PML-N, by a PPP-led coalition, or a PTI-led coalition? Why do we have no idea what to expect? The main reason is that election campaigns are short and frenzied in Pakistan, with little time for polling (in contrast, the US presidential campaign, for example, lasts nearly two years, including the primaries). In addition, surveys are conducted at the national level, and are, therefore, largely meaningless in predicting outcomes in Pakistan’s parliamentary democracy. Surveys in Pakistan need to be undertaken at the electoral constituency level in order to have predictive power.

In this election, two additional factors have compounded the usual electoral uncertainty. The first is the emergence of the PTI as a serious third-party contender in a country where politics has hitherto been dominated by only two parties, effectively changing the landscape as we know it. Imran Khan has energised a disenchanted voting population, and voter turnout is expected to be higher than in previous elections. The second factor is demographic: specifically, the youth vote. There are 35 million new voters on the rolls in this election, most of them between the ages of 18 and 25.

Having mentioned the unknowns, it is worth better understanding what we do know. It is widely understood that there is a national-level incumbency disadvantage in Pakistani politics, with the PPP and the PML-N’s alternating stints in power in the 1990s. A national level incumbency disadvantage is to be expected this year, with approximately 91 per cent of the population dissatisfied with the way things are currently going in the country. The constituency-level roots of this national effect are not well-known. During the course of my work, using constituency-level election results data from 1988 to 1997, I show that incumbent MNAs who were elected by relatively small margins face a large incumbency disadvantage i.e., they are much less likely to be elected in the next election than candidates who previously lost by a small margin.

What does this empirical fact mean for the 2013 election? The biggest implication is that Mr Khan’s party may have a chance on May 11, since, all else equal, people are really voting against two incumbent parties this year i.e., against the national-level government of the PPP, and against the provincial Punjab government of the PML-N. Discussions with PTI supporters certainly bear out this hypothesis — their vote is as much a vote for Imran as a vote against the other parties. In addition, Mr Khan’s party platform and campaign of a Naya Pakistan is, in a word (or two), anti-status quo. His campaign has also effectively used some pages from US President Barack Obama’s social media strategy during his first electoral campaign, championing ‘change’.

What about the high-ranking and powerful PML-N and PPP candidates, those who are long-standing politicians? They are unlikely to be replaced by a PTI newcomer. On the other hand, any relatively weak candidates from these parties need to be very worried. But, one may counter, Imran Khan’s appeal need not translate to each candidate his party has fielded for election across Pakistan’s electoral constituencies. I would argue that in these constituencies, if the vote is truly a vote against the PPP and the PML-N candidates and a vote for the PTI, candidate identities largely will not matter. This is not unthinkable in a country where party trumps candidate identity at important points (such as when candidates cross party lines to move away from the unpopular incumbent party).

In a country rife with ethnic, sectarian, provincial, class and political conflicts and on a downward spiral, Mr Khan represents the one source of passionate unity for the country — cricket — and a true source of national pride: the leader of the 1992 cricket World Cup victory. Given this, he has truly picked an ingenious party symbol with the bat. He has also run a tireless campaign, culminating in his chilling fall on May 7. Whether or not his efforts will pan out, we will know soon.

There is hope for an Imran Khan victory, and with it, a renewal of lost confidence regarding the power of the vote. There is a palpable energy in the air, similar to Benazir Bhutto’s election to power in 1988. But let’s not forget that a violent and bloody campaign led to this historic election. The attacks against the ANP and the MQM have reshaped the electoral map and restricted the field of candidacy. In fact, we have seen disqualification of candidates similar to the 2002 election with the laws limiting candidacy instituted by General (retd) Pervez Musharraf, except this time, instead of Musharraf, the Taliban are (literally) calling the shots. This is a situation far from ideal and hardly represents a flourishing democracy. But a strong vote for Mr Khan will reassure many that a Naya Pakistan may yet be possible.

It is ironic that the very existence of an incumbency disadvantage that Mr Khan may ride to a victory has harmful consequences. For legislators on the margin, who know they will be voted out in the next election, an incumbency disadvantage is likely to create incentives for extraction and corruption. But this all rides on the politician’s expectation of being voted out. That may no longer exist if Pakistan sees a political sea-change in the election of the PTI.