Archive for February, 2008
This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post.
Today Pakistan awoke under a spell of relief. The electoral results seem, at least for the time being, to have been accepted as a sounding defeat by the ruling PML-Q. Rather than people taking part in mass civil violence, it was business as usual in Lahore’s Old City while the occasional throng of PML-N supporters cheered for their candidates and held small rallies yelling “Nawaz Zindaband” (go Nawaz Sharif)! It was widely predicted by experts in both Pakistan and the West that wide spread unrest was likely if Musharraf’s party won thereby fulfilling vote rigging conspiracy theories bubbling among the opposition. Here in Pakistan is often speculated that, rather than being spontaneous outbursts of hostility, much of the violence is actually organized by clever political actors in order to exact concessions from their opponents. An additional effect of creating the appearance of urban anarchy is to humiliate the country’s rulers via the media in front of donor nations and trade partners. But the aftermath yesterday’s vote was nothing of the sort.
U.S. Senators Joe Biden, John Kerry, and Chuck Hagel were in Lahore yesterday as the American delegation among a slew of international poll observers. In a press conference here, Senator Biden remarked that while he could not say with confidence that the process had been free and fair, it could be counted as a “credible election” in which Pakistan could lurch forward toward civilian rule which has been absent since 1999’s post-Kargil war coup and the then PM Sharif’s exile in the Saudi kingdom. It appears that a majority of Pakistanis are ready to move forward even if it is with the godfather-like, discredited, former ruling elites Zardari and Sharif. The death knell for Musharraf’s popularity began with the eruption of the lawyer’s movement here last March and was accelerated by the General-cum-President’s handling of the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) siege in Islamabad in the July heat.
While undoubtedly there was a certain degree of ballot stuffing, voter intimidation, and procedural inconsistencies, many people here in Lahore displayed jubilation at the overall result. As the election hype was drowned out by the hum of commerce, families relaxed with picnics, children played in the Old City’s dusty warrens and revelers vandalized ads for the slumped PML-Q.
If the PML-N and the Pakistan People’s Party can agree to coalesce, they may be able to depose Pervez Musharraf without the use of force. Whether the president is willing to cooperate with the men he helped depose will determine whether or not the country can right itself from sliding into expanding mayhem. For now, the tea is boiling and the tablas are thumping into the night.
Along The Mall, Lahore’s primary commercial strip, a cluster of curious traffic police stood watch upon the odd rickshaw and teenage cyclist. Normally choked with a riot of buzzing traffic, The Mall was eerily quiet as the polls opened this morning on the national and provincial elections that could budge the country’s long stalled plebiscite. Negotiating into the gender-segregated polling place was quite easy but observing a “free and fair” voting process was a far more distant goal. It is likely that Lahore will be the most important of Pakistan’s major urban centers being the capital of the nation’s most populous, centralized province. The three principal parties contesting the vote in Punjab, the PML-N, the PPP, and the PML-Q, are represented by symbols on the ballot sheets to enable voter participation among semi-literate and illiterate people enabling a voting process without the voters needing to have been educated beforehand. This has traditionally been a very convenient arrangement for an electorate where literal vote buying is the norm. Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N is represented by a tiger (although his supporters keep referring to him as the lion), Bhutto’s PPP is represented by a tricolor arrow of red, black, and green while Musharraf’s PML-Q is curiously a cartoonish bicycle. This morning, many Pakistanis were bussed to polling places by party apparatchiks who simply instructed them on who to cast their vote for. Here in Lahore, although there were officially eight parties running on the ballot, only party workers with voter registration rolls from the three major parties were present to check ballots against the printed lists. Ironically, at the first polling station we visited, the people working for the election commission did not have detailed voter rolls, while the party workers had fairly complete lists of exactly who was meant to turn up. The prospects for transparency immediately looked dim.
The strongest turn out in central Lahore appeared to be for the hometown hero, Mr. Sharif. To take a shallow dive in the complexity of Pakistan’s disparate, feudal regionalisms, other parties not represented whatsoever in Lahore were hotly contesting Karachi and Peshawar. The Muttahida Qaumi Movement or MQM, which represents Pakistan’s mohajirs, the millions of Urdu-speaking Muslims who migrated to Pakistan from across post-Partition India, was battling the PPP in Karachi while the Awami National League, a secularist, left-leaning, primarily Pashtun party was going against the PPP in Peshawar in the Northwest Frontier.
Mohammed Ashraf Hussein, director of Punjab province’s Press Information Department told me that “the most crucial part of the election is Punjab” and that “who wins Punjab will control the National Assembly” meaning that Punjab carries the most seats in the National Assembly i.e. Parliament and whichever party wins the dense province will choose the country’s next Prime Minister. When asked what he thought of Musharraf’s man, Chaudry Pervaiz Elahi, running on the “bicycle” (PML-Q) ticket, he dryly replied “well Musharraf and Elahi are friends since long time and have been ruling together for the past five years” making it clear what he thought without actually stating that he was a PML-Q functionary. Elahi was the Chief Minister of Punjab and the President’s favored choice the lead the nation lest they tire of him. When commenting on the relation to the voters and their parties, he explained that a minority of voters pick candidates based on a rational decision making and that the overwhelming majority voted for whomever, or whatever symbol for that matter, represented their regional, religious, or clan affiliations.
As the polls closed at dusk, horse carts and minibuses began to compete for space on roads that had been virtually deserted for most of the day. No one seemed to know exactly when the results would be announced as anxiety mounted. Asif Ali Zardari, Benazir Bhutto’s notorious widower, stated that his PPP followers would spill into the streets if he deemed the elections to be rigged which would likely be any result in where they were not swept back into power. There is an old, rather condescending, expression regarding democracy on the subcontinent that goes something like “in America, people cast their vote, while in India, people vote their cast”. In Pakistan, people vote their symbol and their symbol may simply usher in further discord if the nation’s Big Men cannot accommodate one another in a civil, political arena. One hundred and sixty million people are waiting.
This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post.
Tomorrow morning millions of voters in Pakistan will cast their ballots in perhaps the most crucial vote in the nation’s sixty years of independence. The bloody campaign season has been rocked by a series of well coordinated suicide attacks, the most notable of which killed former prime minister Bhutto just twelve days before the election’s originally scheduled date of January 8th. While voters in the United States are deciding which candidate they’re going to throw their support behind, voters here are mulling over whether to vote at all. The ultra violent Tehrik-e-Taleban Pakistan, an indigenous mimic of the Afghan Taleban movement, are threatening the populace on election day dare they risk participation. Simultaneously, hard line Islamist politicians are instructing their legions to boycott the elections on the basis that they are guaranteed to be rigged with massive voter fraud and will only further entrench Musharraf’s power.
Yesterday, adjacent to Lahore’s massive moghul Red Fort, an anti-government, seemingly anti-everything rally was held by the All Parties Democratic Movement led by former world champion cricketer Imran Khan who star’s as the groups handsome and iconic public face. An odd coalition of political Islamists, violent irredentists, and various flag bearing sub-national ethnic groups put on a display of fervor primarily aimed at Pakistan’s domestic media. As can be expected at such a carefully orchestrated gathering, the crowd chanted “go Musharraf, go”, called for the defeat of “Hindustan” (India) and for the further humiliation of George W. Bush.
Each speaker, one after the next, did their best to stir up their constituents without ever stating what positions they actually stood for other than the wildly unrealistic goal of wresting Indian-administered Kashmir from Delhi. Mr Khan’s politically weak Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf party linked up with Jamaat-e-Islami, one of the core elements of the Muttahida-Majlis-e-Amal, a pan-Islamic political alliance, to essentially tell people to stay at home and shun Musharraf’s attempt at steering Pakistan into a democratic transition. People may be staying home indeed but it will be because they are under duress from fiercely escalating nihilistic violence, including an attack on an opposition Pakistan People’s Party rally on Saturday killing thirty seven in the country’s unstable northwest, rather than because corrupt power brokers are telling them to do so.
While the crowd was made up primarily of supporters of these fairly mainstream parties, there were several members of supposedly banned radical anti-Shia outfits and Kashmiri separatists among them who would have the most to lose should the nation change course domestically and internationally and its foreign policy toward India or the United States shift in a softer direction. Qazi Hussein Ahmad, the president of Jamaat-e-Islami, invoked the “martyrdom” of Nawab Akbar Bugti, a aged guerilla leader in Balochistan who was assassinated by Musharraf as he lead a Baluchi nationalist uprising against the federal government’s transfer the of the sparsely populated province’s resources, primarily natural gas, to populous Punjab province and the millions in Karachi. Bugti’s name was used again and again to demonstrate that his killing was an attack on Pakistan’s poor writ large through the “enlightened moderation” the General has tried to impose upon the rebels and rejectionists who operate in the country’s zealous political fray.
Upon leaving the APDM rally, I spotted a crowd massing around a cluster of the Punjab police’s blue Toyota Hi-Lux pick-ups in front of the Data Darbar, a legendary mosque in the heart of old Lahore. A man in a neatly pressed shalwar kameez and tweed vest quietly ushered me to the side of a white sedan and asked, as many people on the subcontinent do, where I was from. I replied that I was from New York and a journalist. He instructed me to take my shoes off and run inside the mosque’s courtyard. I rushed through the white marble columns seeing a thick circle of bedraggled worshippers. In the center of the circle was former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif sitting cross-legged speaking very slowly into a loudspeaker being held by one of his aides. Recently returned from his banishment in Saudi Arabia, he was now on the street and more importantly in the mosque, telling the poor and the anxious that he was one of them now and that he did not fear the elections and nor should they. As head of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), Mr. Sharif was directly challenging Musharraf’s rival wing of the party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-e-Azam (PML-Q) led by Musharraf’s candidate Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi When the former PM got up to leave, excitement turned to pandemonium as his private security men began to transfer him to the protection of the Punjab police. He then stood on the hood of one of the police trucks feigning a triumphant comeback and defying the suicide bombers who would love nothing more than to further de-stabilize the electoral process as the Islamic Republic of Pakistan teeters between the edge of anarchy and the prospect of a peaceful, if imperfect, democratic reconciliation. Knowing that Mr Sharif is high on the militant’s hit list, I jumped on a motorcycle and sped the opposite direction. Such is the campaign trail in Pakistan.