05/10/2013 10:39 am ET Updated Jul 10, 2013

Election Day in Pakistan: Will Violence Derail Democracy?

On Saturday, Pakistanis head to the polls for what is rightly being described as an historic election. Never before has one democratically elected government handed power to another.

However, recent events suggest the election could make history of a very different kind -- Pakistan's most violent ballot ever.

Election-related violence is nothing new in Pakistan. Yet many Pakistani observers are describing this year's as unprecedented.

According to Human Rights Watch, at least 70 people were killed in election-related attacks in April -- including more than 46 deaths since April 21, when formal campaigning began.

Most of this bloodshed is being orchestrated by the Pakistani Taliban (TTP). Its vicious campaign of violence threatens the credibility of Pakistan's election and risks derailing democracy in the volatile, nuclear-armed nation.

In mid-March, the TTP vowed to attack the three main parties in the last governing coalition: the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP), the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), and the Awami National Party (ANP). No such threat was made against Pakistan's more conservative or religious parties, including the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) -- which many believe will emerge victorious on May 11 -- and ex-cricketer Imran Khan's Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).

Two months after the TTP's initial threat, the returns are in: Four attacks on PPP targets in as many days (and, just the other day, the abduction of a former prime minister's son), assassinations of MQM candidates on consecutive days, and assaults on two top ANP officials in less than a week. And that's just a small sample.

These besieged parties scaled back, and in some cases eliminated, public campaigning. Meanwhile, parties not on the TTP's hit list offered no condemnation of the Taliban's butchery, and continued to campaign unencumbered and in the open. Twitter timelines sharply captured this divide: Non-targeted parties' exuberant tweets about massive rallies were sandwiched between targeted parties' mournful posts about their latest fatalities.

Any semblance of a narrow playing field has vanished, and on Saturday the non-targeted parties stand to benefit from the Taliban's savagery. Much of the Taliban-instigated election violence has been in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), which marginalizes the ANP in its sole bastion--and provides an opening for the PTI, which has attracted considerable support in the province.

Meanwhile, the PPP has hunkered down in its stronghold of relatively calm rural Sindh province. Violence prevented it from campaigning in KP, where it received only about 15,000 fewer total votes than the ANP in Pakistan's last national election. The PPP also curtailed its activities in Punjab, Pakistan's most populous province and the one that will likely decide the election. Here, Taliban attacks have been limited. This is probably because it's a PML-N stronghold and, in recent weeks, a PML-N/PTI battleground -- not to mention home to 55 parliamentary candidates that the Pakistani government classifies as terrorists.

In effect, there's a strong possibility that the Taliban's terror campaign will directly affect the election's outcome -- a demoralizing blow for Pakistan's electorate, which includes 40 million eligible first-time voters (two thirds of Pakistan's 190 million people are under the age of 30).

Such a scenario would also embolden Pakistan's vast network of militants -- one that already operates with impunity and, in some cases, receives support from the security establishment. It's a troubling thought for Washington, which has sent billions of dollars in aid to Pakistan, and for U.S. and coalition forces withdrawing from neighboring Afghanistan. These departing troops' supplies are transported via Pakistani roads that pass directly through extremist strongholds.

Yet the impact on Pakistan's electoral process is equally troubling. In much of the country, basic rudiments of elections -- mobilizing and campaigning -- were eliminated. Another -- the ability to vote -- may well follow. Over the last few weeks, the Taliban has threatened to target voters at polling stations. The mere fear of this prospect will probably keep many voters home -- particularly those living in areas loyal to the PPP, PML-N, and ANP.

Flawed elections are old news in Pakistan. Yet this year's electoral problems are particularly alarming because they threaten the country's slow but steady -- and often overlooked -- democratization. The army no longer plays an overt role in politics, and its top general recently affirmed his desire to help strengthen democracy. In recent years, Islamabad has ratified constitutional amendments that provide more autonomy to provincial governments and stipulate peaceful transfer-of-power procedures.

Pakistan's democratic achievements can be seen in the unprecedented diversity of its parliamentary candidates. These include women from the tribal belt and transgenders from Karachi's slums.

Yet such progress is imperiled by the brutally efficient tactics of an organization that categorically rejects democracy.

Ironically, by using violence and intimidation to undercut the electoral prospects of three major political parties, the Taliban may have cast the election's most decisive vote.