May 10, 2013
86m Pakistanis vote today
Updates: Saturday 8:44am - Army chief votes
It has never been seen on TV before: the chief of Pakistan's army, General Ashfaq Pervaiz Kayani, has just come to an ordinary polling station NA 54 and cast his vote. He could have done it by postal ballot, but as Geo TV reported, he chose to come out in public to do his duty. He was the first to do it at this polling station.
This sends the clear message that the army wants to see the democratic process continue smoothly. It is to President Asif Ali Zardari's credit that he kept his government together for five years. After being dismissed before it completed its term twice before, the PPP, Benazir Bhutto's party, wrapped up its five year tenure a month or so ago.
America and indeed the world is expected to closely watch the Pakistani elections today, May 11, 2013 Saturday. For me this is the biggest election yet simply because of the difference Twitter, Facebook and text messaging has been making in the run-up. As I write this Geo TV, a major Urdu news channel, has started its all-night transmission. Analysts and reporters are talking about what they think will happen. The buzz word this year is Naya Pakistan or New Pakistan.
If I were to tell you about the single most important and visible change I would have to mention Imran Khan. He was our face of cricket on the world stage and has returned to the public sphere with his political party - Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (The Pakistan Movement for Justice). The ladies love him and from what little I've been hearing, they are all getting dressed up to go out and vote for him. I expect the PTI to win big for two reasons. Imran has been talking about people voting for candidates who make sense and not, as has been the tradition, voting for your feudal landlord, your clansmen/tribe or your ethnic or religious group. Imran has also harnessed Pakistan's youth.
Just to give you a little idea. There are 86m voters out of which about 16m are between 18 and 25 years of age. If you take it to 35 years, the number grows to 40m. The election campaigning has not, however, been as robust as one would have hoped simply because the Taliban have been bombing everyone. Just a day ago the former prime minister's son was kidnapped at a corner meeting in Multan. News has just rolled in that the elections have been postponed in one constituency up north as militants just launched an attack. Benazir's son Bilawal has been forced to give video addresses because of security fears and a string of daily bombings in Karachi meant that no party really held the kind of rallies that usually colour a campaign.
The people have so far been disillusioned by the PPP, the party Benazir Bhutto brought to power through a largely sympathy vote in 2008. The party was led by her husband and had five years to prove itself. But given unemployment, inflation and terrorism, people are not likely to give them as much of a mandate. It is worth noting, as my friend Gulraiz Khan pointed out, no one has been campaigning on an outward-looking tack as such. Kashmir has hardly been mentioned. Neither has India. Forget Afghanistan. Politicians have been focused on domestic issues by and large.
These are the 10th parliamentary elections in Pakistan's 65-year history, half of which was dominated by the military in the driving seat while the rest of the country fell by the wayside. Still, people are feeling hopeful after a decade of bloodshed post-9/11. Pakistanis have paid a price for their own interpretation of the events of that day and the way the world wanted it to act. Still, the good news is that Pew did some research and this is what they found: "For the first time since the Pew Research Centre began polling on these issues, the Taliban is essentially considered as big a threat to Pakistan as longtime rival India."
Voting will be challenging for many areas. In the more conservative parts of the country, women can forget about it. Many more people simply don't have the ID cards to do it. In other places there will be corruption and violence. One of the tricks is to scare of voters as they approach the polling station by firing at them. Usually works. Other more devious types will cast your vote for you ahead of time. You arrive at the polling station only to be told that you shouldn't have bothered.
However, the good news is that the Election Commission of Pakistan is headed by one of our most honest retired judges. Also, they have been trying their best to get the message out, use technology to do it and ensure that there is as little fraud as possible. So, Pakistanis could text in to the number 8300 their computerised national identity card number and the ECP would text back the constituency and location of the polling station. It also has a mechanism in place to deal with fake votes. If you arrive and find that your vote has already been cast you can complain, put your fresh ballot in an envelope that will be sealed and cast it. All of this will be noted down.
Exit polls will also be conducted by Gallup. But after polling ends, we are expecting rough results by about 7pm. Official results come much later.
If you want to follow the updates here are a few websites that are recommended:
http://dawn.com/elections-2013/ (very jazzy, chock full of info/background)
http://elections.tribune.com.pk/ (my newspaper's clean guide)
http://www.ptvworldnews.com.pk/livestreaming.asp (if you can get it, PTV World is our only channel in English)
http://www.pakvotes.com/ (excellent map and breakdown) live.geo.tv/ (In Urdu, but will give you an idea of what it is looking like)
I will be filing tomorrow as many updates as possible...