Impressions of a Pakistan election monitor
- Pakistan’s national and regional elections Saturday marked the first peaceful transition from one civilian government to another since the country’s founding in 1947.
As expected, Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) party, which held power several times in the 1990s, won a plurality of the National Assembly seats, and is likely to form a government.
But the winners and losers matter less than the historic process. For the first time, the entire nation was galvanized by election fever. A stunning 36 million new voters registered, especially women and young people. Voter turnout was 60 percent compared to 44 percent in 2008. An unprecedented 15,600 people ran for national or regional political office. Many from outside the ranks of Pakistan’s traditional leaders.
I experienced some of this national enthusiasm because I served as an international election monitor in Lahore. (More information on the mission is here.) Our rickshaw driver and tour guide proudly showed us his name on the candidate list. He said he wanted to help create a new Pakistan.
Lahore is Pakistan’s second largest city, and a traditional stronghold of the PML-N. In 15 hours, my team of two men and myself observed 11 polling stations – from wealthy suburban neighborhoods where one gentleman told me he had flown in from his home in West Palm Beach, Florida, to vote – to slums and rural villages outside Lahore’s ring road.
We witnessed many “election irregularities” – especially at the women’s polling stations. However, most “irregularities” I saw were committed due to inexperience or to help people vote, not as an attempt to rig the outcome.
At one crumbling village elementary school, for example, the men’s polling progressed in an orderly way. Each polling booth was in a separate, fan-cooled classroom with orderly lines outside, and each booth’s election staff working fairly efficiently.
All three women’s polling booths, though, were crowded into one tiny, hot classroom upstairs. The cardboard polling booths had not arrived, so the presiding officer rigged sheets of paper on school desks to provide limited privacy for the voters. Critically, no election staff had arrived – so even these booths had not opened two hours into the voting day.
Dozens of women crowded the hallway outside. Finally the desperate presiding officer opened the booths with the help of only a police officer and a political party volunteer.
This was a clear violation of the rules – the security forces and political parties had strict instructions not to interfere in the voting in any way, but it was done in the interest of giving these women a chance to vote.
In a poor slum, I witnessed many women voting in groups – often daughters helping their illiterate mothers read and navigate the rather complicated ballot. When I walked in, the presiding officer stopped this obviously illegal practice. But I assume it continued after we left.
Most of Pakistan’s 190 million, largely illiterate population voted peacefully.
There were episodes of violence though – at least 21 people were killed election day, mostly in Karachi and Baluchistan, and dozens were injured, including eight women wounded by a bomb that exploded near a polling station in Peshawar. More than 100 people had been killed in the weeks before the election, with many deaths due to attacks claimed by the Pakistani Taliban.
The violence we observed was not a result of militants interrupting the proceedings, or an intentional attempt to disenfranchise voters. It looked more like voters’ tempers running short after a day spent waiting in the 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.8 degrees Celsius) heat.
Late in the afternoon, we saw a large fight break out as we tried to enter a polling station. The small courtyard was crowded with more than 500 hot, and by now impatient, people waiting to vote. We were led away immediately, “for our safety,” we were told, as Pakistani police rushed in to break up the fight.
Again and again, our team was approached by women voters and party volunteers outside the polling stations, saying how glad they were that we were there to monitor.
Some did mention alleged violations. These violations ranged from a representative of one political party charging that the opposing party was allowing people to vote multiple times. (We were not able to confirm or deny this based on our observations.)
At another station in a wealthy area, women from the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI) – Imran Khan’s insurgent party – alleged that the PML-N candidate and his wife had burst into their polling booth to disrupt and slow the proceedings. They showed us films of the incident on their iPhones. We stayed to watch the vote count at this station. Despite the interruption in voting, the PTI candidate won by a margin of four to one.
This election gave Pakistanis a real taste of democracy – the feeling their vote matters. Pakistanis showed courage and resolve in the face of deadly challenges. They demonstrated that the vast majority is desperately eager to break with the country’s difficult past. They are looking for good governance, and a fairly secular, modern state, where all people – including women – have opportunities.
I did some sightseeing before heading to the airport, and was mobbed by a group of young Pakistani women. My security was slightly worried – until it became clear that the young women wanted only two things. They wanted (1) to take a picture with a strange American woman and (2) to get my name, so they could friend me on Facebook.
This is the new Pakistan.
PHOTO (Insert A): Election workers count ballots after polls closed for Pakistan’s general elections in Peshawar May 11, 2013. REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood
PHOTO (Insert B): Voters line up as they wait for their turn to cast their vote at a polling station in Karachi May 11, 2013. REUTERS/Athar Hussain