Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari. REUTERS/Osman Orsal

Islamabad - Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari announced on Wednesday that general elections would be held on May 11, in what will mark the first democratic transition of power in the country's history.

“The president received a summary from the government asking him to announce a suitable date for the election, so the president announced on Wednesday that general elections to the national assembly will be held on May 11,” spokesman Farhatullah Babar told AFP.

Parliament made history last week by becoming the first under a civilian leader to complete a full five-year term, but Taliban attacks and record levels of violence against Shi'a Muslims have raised fears about security for the polls.

The election will mark the first time that an elected civilian government hands over to another in the nuclear-armed country of 180 million, which has seen three military coups and four military rulers.

The electoral race will be dominated by the ruling Pakistan People's Party and the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-N led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

Elections will also be held for assemblies in Pakistan's four provinces, but Babar told AFP there was no decision yet on whether those polls will also be held on May 11.

Lasting the course has been a significant achievement of the outgoing government, but analysts say it has been overshadowed by mismanagement, economic decline and worsening security.

When the PPP won elections in 2008 on a wave of national grief over the assassination of its leader Benazir Bhutto few imagined her widower would prove such an adept, agile and long-standing president.

Helped by the army chief of staff's determination to keep to the sidelines and the opposition's unwillingness to force early elections, Zardari's wheeler-dealer ability has been crucial to keeping his government together.

In 2010 he relinquished much of his power to the prime minister, rolling back on decades of meddling by military rulers in an effort to institutionalise parliamentary democracy.

But apart from a watershed military operation that pushed the Taliban out of the Swat valley in 2009, the government has been unable or unwilling to crack down on the plethora of Islamist militant networks blamed for violence in Pakistan, Afghanistan and India.

Pakistan has hosted no international cricket, the national obsession, since gunmen attacked the Sri Lankan team in March 2009. Religious violence has reached dizzying levels.

Karachi, the largest city and business hub, is suffering from record killings linked to political and ethnic tensions, with more than 2 000 dead in 2012.

Nothing was done to resolve a chronic energy crisis or introduce desperately needed tax reforms. Ministers have been tainted by accusations of appalling corruption.

After the elections, Pakistan is expected to have little option but to seek another bailout package from the International Monetary Fund, given its yawning budget deficit.

A parliamentary committee has until Friday to select a candidate to head up a caretaker administration, which will formally steer the country towards the ballot box. - AFP