February 25, 2008
Pakistan: "We Routed the Men with Beards!"
BY Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy
Party workers at information booths in Karachi check voter's registration numbers.
Karachi erupted in celebrations soon after the last votes were cast in Pakistan's parliamentary elections. Thousands of people took to the streets, gun shots were fired in the air, music blasted through speakers at main roads, young men with painted faces joyously waved their party flags. And as the night grew darker, and the unofficial results poured in, they were joined by others who danced the night away. The 2008 elections in Pakistan, barring a few violent incidents, ended peacefully. Turnout was low -- perhaps people feared attacks -- but the results were a stunning rebuke to President Pervez Musharraf's ruling party.
A week later, many voters are still ecstatic. Across the city at a local pool hall in the busy commercial area of Tariq Road, I spoke with a group of young men, all college graduates. One of them, 22-year-old Kashif Jan, had voted for the first time. "We routed the men with beards," he tells me excitedly. "At least, we are on the road to democracy, and by voting Pakistanis have told the world that we are not extremists and we don't want Islamic fundamentalists in power."
"Can you imagine that 25 percent of the 2002 parliament was made up of religious parties and this time they won just a few seats? I think the people are rejecting their violent ways finally."
His good friend, Ali Nasir, a graduate of Fatima Jinnah Medical College, tells me that the results shocked him. "Can you imagine that 25 percent of the 2002 parliament was made up of religious parties and this time they won just a few seats? I think the people are rejecting their violent ways finally."
But for others, the joy of an election upset has given way to caution.
Riding on a wave of sympathy for their assassinated leader, Benazir Bhutto, the Pakistan People's Party emerged as the big winner, followed by the Pakistan Muslim League led by Nawaz Sharif. But Pakistanis watched in awe as the two opposition parties announced their plans to join hands to form a new government. Historically, both political parties have fought each other for power in the country and Benazir Bhutto was known to have disdain for Sharif. In fact, in her book released posthumously last week, Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West, Ms. Bhutto, amongst other things, blames Sharif for helping to bring the Taliban to power in Afghanistan in the 1990s. So watching Ms. Bhutto's widower, Asif Ali Zardari, shake hands with Sharif on television during a press conference was a surreal experience for most Pakistanis.
The 2008 election results offered a rebuke of President Musharraf and the growth of Islamic extremism under his rule.
"We had to shake ourselves to believe what we saw," a Karachi pharmacist, Nabeel Khan, tells me. "Imagine, Asif Ali Zardari sharing power with Sharif. We are doomed. Everyone knows that will fall apart before the year is over."
Khan campaigned hard for Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party and convinced many of his co-workers to vote. What happens in the country affects his family directly. A few months ago they pooled their resources and purchased a piece of land in Nazimabad, a middle class suburb in Karachi. Since then, the assassination of Bhutto, the resulting riots, and all the political insecurity has affected the real estate market and the price of land has plummeted. "People often forget that what happens at the helm of affairs affects minnows like us," he says. "We were planning to sell the land and make a small profit to help start a small business. And now we just don't know what will happen."
Newspapers and TV here agree that these elections have heralded in a new era in the country's history, but the media are anxious to know what this will mean for them.
For the past week, all the newspapers and television channels in the country have been discussing Pakistan's future. They all agree that elections heralded in a new era in the country's history, but the media are anxious to know what this will mean for them. In the past, when Sharif and Benazir Bhutto served as prime ministers, their governments did not allow the Pakistani media much freedom. This time around, any new government will have to contend with more than 20 TV news channels, plus a dozen or so FM radio stations that blossomed under President Musharraf until recently when he imposed his state of emergency. How will the democratically elected government handle criticism? A senior editor at one of the up-and-coming news channels told me in private that he was worried.
"Look, it's simple," the newsman said. "There is no way that the incoming government will tolerate us probing and questioning their every move. Quite honestly, things are going to get very tough for us."
His news channel has had frantic meetings in the past three days to see how they can best defend against a predicted onslaught by the new government. "I know it's a bit preemptive, but we need to be prepared. We wanted democracy in this country, now we have to learn to deal with it."
The Terrorist Threat
The incoming government's job will not be easy. First, there will be the inevitable political jockeying. Already, Sharif has made it clear that his party would move to impeach Musharraf, although the opposition parties fall short of the two-thirds majority they would need in parliament to remove him. Others are urging the opposition to find a graceful way for Musharraf to step down of his own accord and avoid a bitter showdown.
Sharif also appears to be angling for another chance to become prime minister. A constitutional amendment under Musharraf bars prime ministers from holding office for a third time. But Sharif, who served two previous terms as PM, is now saying his party's cooperation with the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) for a national coalition government depends on their willingness to withdraw the ban on third-time premierships.
Above all, there is still the rising threat of terrorism in the country. And today a reminder about just how difficult the task is going to be for any new government. A bomb blast ripped through a busy thoroughfare in Rawalpindi, the city known as the headquarters of the Pakistan Army, killing seven people including a top army medic.
The incoming government will have to tackle terrorism and make it a priority, says Aqueel Khan, who runs a security firm, which provides protection for multinational companies and offices. "Not a day has gone by in the past six months when we haven't had a bomb blast, or a militant attack somewhere in the country. This civil war is not going to end just because we now have democracy."
"Welcome to Democracy, Pakistan-Style"
On the eve of presidential elections in Pakistan, 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 taking place.
Pakistan: State of Emergency
These dispatches are part of ongoing coverage for our next broadcast, "Pakistan: State of Emergency," airing on PBS February 26. Check out our preview page to watch video clips from this and other stories.
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.