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Voters in Pakistan Surprise Pundits, Pick ‘Traditional Choice’ in Sharif

May 13, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
On the eve of the historic election in Pakistan, Declan Walsh, Islamabad bureau chief for The New York Times, had his visa revoked for unspecified "undesirable activities." Margaret Warner talks to Walsh about what the results of the election mean for Pakistan's pressing problems and relationship to the U.S.
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MARGARET WARNER: New York Times correspondent Declan Walsh has been covering Pakistan for nearly 10 years and was planning to follow the country’s historic elections from start to finish. But late last week, he was told his visa was being revoked because of his — quote — “undesirable activities.” He was ordered to leave Pakistan by late Saturday night, election night.

And Declan Walsh joins me now from London.

And, Declan, nice to have you back.

Tell us about getting kicked out of Pakistan. What happened? Were you surprised?

DECLAN WALSH, The New York Times: I was very surprised.

This all started last Wednesday night, when I was summoned back to my home by police officers, who had a letter for me that, as you said, cited undesirable activities, ordered the immediate revocation of my visa and told me I had 72 hours to leave the country.

And we made very strenuous representations to the Pakistani government, firstly to try and understand what was the cause for the visa cancellation and secondly to have this order rescinded. And, unfortunately, that didn’t happen. And after covering the elections on Saturday, early Sunday morning, I flew out of Pakistan.

MARGARET WARNER: And do you have any idea what they meant by “undesirable activities,” what they were sensitive about, about your coverage or your reporting?

DECLAN WALSH: No.

And this is the question that we asked officials at really every level of the Pakistani government, from the Information Ministry up to the ambassadors, military spokespeople. And we didn’t receive an answer.

Presumably, it may have something to do with a story that I have written or that featured in The New York Times. But, really, the Pakistani authorities have not been forthcoming on this question. And that’s the frustrating thing about this issue for us.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, now on to the election results. There was such a build-up, certainly in the Western press and I think even there, about this Imran Khan, the cricketer, reform-minded campaigner.

And in the — but in the end, he got totally trounced by one of the two old-time parties. What happened there?

DECLAN WALSH: Absolutely.

Everyone, certainly, if you like, in the professional punditocracy, was surprised by this result. It caught them unawares. And there had been a very strong sense in the last weeks of campaigning that Mr. Khan was on the up. He had held a number of very high-profile rallies across the country. He had a very energetic campaign. A lot of his supporters were young people, many of them who haven’t voted before.

And they came out in the streets. They were active on the media. He had a very high television presence. And, of course, he had this accident just a couple of days before the end of the campaign in which he fell from a stage, hurt himself quite badly, injured his back, and then gave rather dramatic rally appearances by video link from his hospital bed.

So, there was a very strong sense that the momentum was behind Mr. Khan. And this was seen, if you like, as a battle between old-style politics represented by Mr. Sharif and the outgoing Pakistan People’s Party and this brash new incomer Mr. Khan.

But at the end of the day, when the vote — when the results were counted, it seems that most Pakistani voters actually preferred to go with the traditional choice with Mr. Sharif, who has twice been prime minister before. And he took the majority of the votes.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what sort of changes has Sharif said he’s going to bring in, as opposed to the current government, as you said, of the Pakistan People’s Party?

DECLAN WALSH: Mr. Sharif has promised to undo the damage, as critics have put it, that the previous government had done.

Over the last five years, the economy has declined quite sharply. One of the most pressing problems in the country are the electricity shortages. In some areas, the power can go out for 12, even 18 hours at a time. So Mr. Sharif campaigned very heavily on those issues. He blamed the previous government for failing to reverse course in terms of the economy.

And he says that he’s got a strong record to turn the country around. Of course, the other issue that Pakistan faces almost equally pressingly is the Taliban insurgency. All the way through the elections, the Taliban attacked candidates from secular parties. That is something that Mr. Sharif was less vocal about, and critics say will be an equally pressing challenge for him when he comes to power.

MARGARET WARNER: And so what will this mean for the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, both in terms of cooperating against militants, the Taliban, and other groups, and also in terms of the U.S. plans to withdraw most of its troops, our troops, from Afghanistan next year?

DECLAN WALSH: Well, Mr. Sharif is a conservative politician. He’s had dealings with the U.S. in the past.

In 1999, President Bill Clinton negotiated with Mr. Sharif to de-escalate a potential nuclear conflict with India. On the campaign trail, he had some tough rhetoric for the U.S. He said that he would try to redraw the relationship between Pakistan and the United States, where Pakistan would be less dependent on American support.

Then again, that may just have been campaign rhetoric, because it seems that Pakistan may require American support in the coming weeks or the next month to seek a bailout from the International Monetary Fund. And on the terrorism front, Mr. Sharif has been measured in his criticism of the Taliban, but given the sort of attacks we have seen on the democratic system in the last number of weeks, it seems inevitable that he will have to face up to that problem.

Now, whether he will do so in a manner that will satisfy, if you like, American officials remains to be.

MARGARET WARNER: A stormy relationship.

Well, Declan Walsh of The New York Times, thank you so much.

DECLAN WALSH: My pleasure.