ISLAMABAD -- Pakistan's fragile democracy reached a milestone Saturday when the government stepped down at the end of its five-year term, setting the stage for elections due to take place by mid-May.
The action was a first in a country where the powerful military has regularly ousted civilian governments, either directly through coups or indirectly through constitutional maneuvers, and it offered hope that the parliamentary system was maturing.
Still, a faltering economy and widespread militant violence have left many Pakistanis grumbling about the lack of tangible dividends from democracy, and the governing Pakistan Peoples Party, whose performance has been widely criticized, will face a strong challenge from the opposition leader, the former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
In a televised address to the nation that was heavily steeped in his party's history, Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf defended his government's record. Talks with the opposition over the formation of a caretaker administration, which would run the country until the elections, were continuing, he said.
A peaceful transfer of power to a new government would be a political victory of sorts for President Asif Ali Zardari, the party co-chairman, who has confounded regular predictions of the demise of his government over the past five years. A good showing by his party in the election may help him win re-election when his terms expires in September. (Pakistan's president is indirectly elected by the national and regional assemblies)
Recent polls indicate that the party of Mr. Sharif, who was ousted in a military coup in 1999, is the favorite to win the vote. A Gallup poll in February gave his party 27 percent support, with the Pakistan Peoples Party running a distant second. Since analysts say he is unlikely to muster an outright majority, a range of ethnic, regional and religious parties could hold the balance of power in determining a coalition government.
Other personalities and factors are also expected to play a role. The cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, who has campaigned heavily against corruption and in opposition to U.S. drone strikes, hopes to eat into Mr. Sharif's support base in Punjab province, which accounts for over half of the 272 elected seats in Parliament.
The former military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, has vowed to return from exile on March 24 to contest the election, even though he faces criminal prosecution in court cases related to his rule between 1999 and 2008.
And Muhammad Tahir-ul Qadri, a charismatic preacher who led thousands of supporters into central Islamabad for a protracted sit-in last January, says he will help ensure the integrity of the election.
In a crucial development, the army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, has emphasized that he fully supports the elections, and there are few indications that the military is backing any one party. "The military is apparently standing aloof and letting the battle be fought among politicians, which is a rare thing and a healthy one," said Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency.
The often stormy relationship between Pakistan and the United States has been relatively placid in recent months, although widespread public hostility toward Washington may be mobilized for political gain.
Last week, Mr. Zardari and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran held a ceremony to commemorate the start of construction in Pakistan of a gas pipeline between the two countries, which has been bitterly opposed by the Obama administration and could, if completed, lead to economic sanctions against Pakistan.
Analysts, however, say the pipeline will take years to complete, and the ceremony may have been dictated by political considerations.