KORVA COLEMAN, HOST:
Pakistan holds general elections on Wednesday. It's only the second time ever there's been a peaceful handover of power in the country's 70-year history. NPR's Diaa Hadid has been covering the campaign, and she joins us now from Islamabad.
Good morning, Diaa.
DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Good morning.
COLEMAN: Diaa, what's the mood like ahead of elections?
HADID: It's quite polarized right now in Pakistan. There's two main parties that are contesting these elections. And one is led by a man called Imran Khan. He's a legendary sportsman here. And he's rallying his followers to throw out the old corrupt elites. And there's a sense of exuberance among his followers, like they're riding a wave to victory. But among the rival party, the mood's pretty glum. They're the former ruling party, but in the past few months, there's been a slew of corruption cases against their party leader, the former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif. There's been arrests of party workers, and there's been a crackdown on media that's perceived as being sympathetic to the Sharifs. And for all this, the party followers blame the military. It's Pakistan's most powerful institution, and it's had a tenacious relationship with Sharif and his party.
COLEMAN: So one party is riding really high, and another seems like it's in the doldrums. Are these the only two parties that are running in this election, Diaa?
HADID: If only. There's so many parties here, including a few extremist groups. And, in fact, one of the groups running in these elections is a front for a militant organization called Lashkar-e-Taiba. And its leader, Hafiz Saeed, is accused of masterminding attacks that happened about a decade ago in India that killed more than 160 people. His group is considered a terrorist organization by much of the West. The U.S. has put a $10 million bounty for his arrest. But his followers are openly campaigning in these elections.
COLEMAN: But if they're a front for a militant group, why are they being allowed to run?
HADID: Well, it's a valid question. I mean, certainly, the West and the Trump administration has accused Pakistan of harboring militants. And Pakistan was even censured in June by an international financial watchdog for not cracking down hard enough on terrorist financing. But analysts here say this is the work of the Pakistani military, which is trying to, quote, unquote, "mainstream" extremist groups. And the thinking is, if you throw radical groups into politics, they'll have to deradicalize because they'll have to appeal to a wider audience.
COLEMAN: So are they becoming more mainstream?
HADID: Some of them are trying to appeal to a wider audience. And I went to a village close to the border with India. It's about an hour away from the nearest town on bumpy roads flanked by green fields. And there were buffalos everywhere. And there I met a man called Mohammed Irfan. And he's political organizer for this front group of this militant organization. And when I got there, he was speaking to men in the sun who were just waiting to hear what he had to say. And what he had to say was interesting.
MOHAMMED IRFAN: (Foreign language spoken).
HADID: He was telling them that women in this area weren't getting maternity care, that women were dying during pregnancy. And he promised these men that they had a plan for women's health care. And the crowd just started clapping. He promised to end child labor. He promised to give interest-free loans to farmers. And we spoke to some of the men who had gathered there after the rally, and they said, yeah, they'd vote for this party because it was the only one that had ever taken the time to notice them and care about their issues. That doesn't mean they're not radical. It just means that's not how you can pitch to followers for an election.
COLEMAN: Does the U.S. have skin in the game in this election? This country wants the Pakistani government to crack down on the Taliban there. Will any of these candidates do that?
HADID: Well, among the two main parties, the party of Imran Khan has made deals in the past with the Taliban that exists in Pakistan, so it's hard to see how he's going to fight against them, but it may well change once he reaches power. The bigger question is, what do you do about the extremist groups that are now in the national Parliament or that will be in the national Parliament?
COLEMAN: NPR's Diaa Hadid, thank you very much.
HADID: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.