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"Welcome to Democracy, Pakistan-Style"

Election street banner.

Election banner on the streets of Karachi.

Editor's Note: On the eve of tense elections in Pakistan, where more than 50 people were killed in pre-election violence over the weekend, FRONTLINE/World's Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy visits the neighborhoods around her home city of Karachi where she reports that ballot rigging, coercion and intimidation are all taking place. Although the government has stressed this election will be free and fair, one smaller-party candidate told Obaid-Chinoy, "In this illiterate country of ours, fear, intimidation, and harassment get you votes. Until that culture is destroyed, Pakistan will never have democracy."

Even before the first vote has been cast, there are fears of massive rigging. Leaders of the two major opposition parties, the Pakistan People's Party and the Pakistan Muslim League, have already warned that the elections will not be free and fair. To average Pakistanis, the February 18th election is merely a game played out at the behest of the Americans.

After reporting for several months on the run-up to this violence-scarred election, I've spent the past two days in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city, and I find that the mood here is somber. Most people are staying indoors and avoiding political rallies. There are few signs that Monday's elections can change the country's course. If it weren't for the party flags and banners, you wouldn't even know elections were about to take place.

"I'm taking a holiday from work because the local representative of a political party has offered me $15 and a bag of rice if my family votes for his party. How can I say no?"

At a bus stand in Saddar, a commercial area in the heart of the city, a number of people told me that they were voting because they were being enticed to. Azizah Khan, who makes $30 a month working as a domestic cleaner, told me that she had been given an offer she couldn't refuse, "I'm taking a holiday from work because the local representative of a political party has offered me $15 and a bag of rice if my family votes for his party. How can I say no?"

At first she was hesitant to say which party, but finally she admitted that it was the Pakistan People's Party, now led by the husband of the late Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated at a campaign rally on December 27.

Naik Ahmed, who owns a hardware store in the industrial neighborhood of Korangi, told me that some members of the political party known as Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) had paid his family a visit last week and demanded that they vote for them. The MQM has dominated politics in Karachi since the mid-1980s, often engaging in violent exchanges with rival parties such as the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), or the religious party the Jamaat-e-Islami, and various ethnic groups in the city.

MQM election sign.

A 2008 election sign encourages passers-by to vote for the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM).

"We told them that we weren't even registered voters, but they told us that didn't matter. All we needed was to show up at the polling booth and they would help us stamp the right vote," Ahmed recalled. "Welcome to Pakistan style democracy," he said as he boarded the bus.

In the run up to the elections, a number of smaller political parties have registered complaints with the election commission. They claim their party workers are being harassed and intimidated by the larger political parties. One of those threatened is the Pakistan Muslim Alliance, a secular, regional party which was formed in 2002. Its members are mostly lower-middle-class shopkeepers, mechanics, electricians and carpenters.

A number of smaller political parties have registered complaints with the election commission. They claim their party workers are being harassed and intimidated by the larger political parties.

In a true democracy everyone is allowed to contest the election, every voice and vote is counted," says Dr. Saud Hussein, an adviser to the party. "But not in this country. Here unless you're a landlord or rich industrialist, democracy is not for you."

The Pakistan Muslim Alliance has fielded eight candidates in Monday's elections. One of them is Hafiz Muhammed Kafiyatullah, a local cleric who was seething with anger. "I read in the local Urdu newspapers that I had withdrawn my candidacy in favor of my opponent from PML (Q) -- the ruling party aligned with President Pervez Musharraf. I have done no such thing. They were trying to intimidate me. When I asked the election commission representative to help me, he said he had no real powers. Now what am I to do?" he implored.

Kafiyatullah is worried that his party's election symbol (a fish) will not even be on the ballot sheet come Monday. Sitting next to him was Abdul, a stocky man with a beard who told me that it wasn't just Musharraf's party who were harassing them: "The MQM is not far behind. They came to us a few days ago and told us that if Hafiz and his followers didn't vote for them, he could be killed."

Karachi street vendors.

Election turnout is expected to be low as people fear more violence.

In the murky world of Pakistan's electoral process, Kafiyatullah's story is not unique. Mohammed Ilyas, a young man who lives in Bilal Colony, a poor neighborhood of Karachi, told me that he had been recruited by the MQM a few days ago. "They came to me and said that I had no choice; I had to help their candidate win. They have now appointed me their polling agent, which means that I have to work with them to ensure that the votes are being cast correctly."

According to Ilyas, members of MQM threatened to injure his brother if he didn't cooperate. When I pressed him further, he told me that in some areas, the ballot papers were already at the candidates's homes. "Some of us have been asked to come to stamp the ballot papers on Sunday night in favor of the MQM," he said.

Ilyas explained the process to me in detail. In some closely contested polling areas where the races are hard to predict, the ballot boxes will be stuffed with papers already stamped for a candidate. "The second method is far more dangerous," he said. "There will be many polling stations, which will be closed down. The voters who show up will be told that their votes have already been cast. In the poor neighborhoods, this is easy to do."

Ilyas explained the process to me in detail. In some closely contested polling areas where the races are hard to predict, the ballot boxes will be stuffed with papers already stamped for a candidate.

The army and the police have been deployed across the country at various polling stations. A lot is on the line for not only the country but also the major political parties. Outside Pakistan the elections on Monday may seem like a major step toward democracy, but many of those trying to take part in the process feel that it's actually a set back for democracy.

Dr. Saud of the Pakistan Muslim Alliance told me that he was 100 percent certain the elections were not going to be free and fair. "It's not because the president of the government doesn't want free and fair elections, it's because in this illiterate country of ours, fear, intimidation and harassment get you votes. Until that culture is destroyed, Pakistan will never have democracy."

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy has been covering the Pakistan elections for FRONTLINE/World. On February 26, we will broadcast "State of Emergency," our report about the rise of the Pakistani Taliban, who vow to fight whatever government is elected this week in Pakistan. Watch video clips and a preview of the broadcast here.

From Our Files

Pakistan: Blackout
In this video dispatch, David Montero reports on the crackdown on Pakistan's independent media since the state of emergency was declared last year and talks with an outspoken news editor and critic of Musharraf whose popular current affairs program was pulled off the air.

Pakistan: Burn, Baby, Burn
Pakistan correspondent Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy reports from a chaotic and still-burning Karachi following the murder of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto.

Pakistan: The New Taliban
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy's third in a series of dispatches focuses on the rise of fundamentalist political forces challenging President Musharraf's government.

Pakistan: The"Other" Bhutto
Watch Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy's interview with Benazir Bhutto's niece Fatima Bhutto, who blames her aunt for the 1996 murder of her father. Educated in the U.S. and fast becoming a prominent figure in her own right, the 25-year-old could turn out to be a serious political player in the coming years.

Pakistan: "The Liberal Dictator"
Read Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy's first dispatch in this series and watch the accompanying video where she interviews activists gathered in an upscale neighborhood of Karachi about Pakistan's political future.

Pakistan: Disappeared
Amina Masood Janjua was an ordinary Pakistani housewife, proud of her country and loyal to its military. But all that changed in July 2005, when her husband never came home. FRONTLINE/World correspondent David Montero reports on how her campaign to find her husband sparked national protests challenging Pakistan's feared intelligence agency, the ISI, and led to events that would severely test Musharraf's power.