Fear and celebration in Karachi

Residents await election day with a curious mix of trepidation and excitement as security threat lingers.

On the eve of Pakistan’s historic election there is a nervousness in the air in Karachi.

This is the city that has seen the worst of the violence that has plagued this election.

The police are out on the streets.

They are the front line in this election. 

Pakistan’s army have been deployed, but they remain in barracks, ready to hit the streets should the Pakistani Taliban make good on their promise to bring mayhem to the streets of Karachi come polling day.

You can sense the nervousness at one of the many polling stations that dot the city.

Navi bagh college is to be used as a polling station in one of the cities largest constituencies, Sardar.

The police have stationed snipers on the roof and outside they stand guard.

The college is a ramshackle building with fading paint and a musty smell.  It is empty at the moment, plunged into darkness by the power cuts that can last upto 18 hours a day, giving the whole place the feeling of the famous ghost ship The Marie Celeste which was found floating with no crew.

Except here the crew, election officials and police are in attendance. What’s missing are ballot boxes, election papers, and registry documents.

Those are being shipped out across the city under police escort over next 12 hours.

Historic handover 

When the polls open at 8am local time election officials it will mark the beginning of Pakistan’s historic handover of power from civilian government to another.

But that sense of history is not felt by Arshad Ali Khan. He is a slightly built man with a moustache and the look of a civil servant that has seen it all.

It’s not history he feels but fear…

“This is year its more sensitive, because of the conditions in Karachi. This was not the case in previous elections, and so I’m more scared of what could happen. Even the officers who will have to spend the night here will be scared.”

But Khan has a job to do and this year’s election is business as usual: “It’s an election, it has to happen every five years.”

Perhaps it’s the nature of a civil servant to err on the side of caution.

Others are not so fearful.

Akbar Ali is a street hawker with a nice line in fake silk cushions and inflatable plastic penguins. It is a curious combination and I wonder what type of customer would sit on a cushion with a plastic penguin for company.

He laughs when I ask him. “Who knows, all I know is if they buy, I eat”

Tempered excitement

Akbar is going to take the day off on Saturday to go back to his village and vote. “It’s my first time. I’m going to vote because it’s my right and my duty, also when I get home I know there will be a happy atmosphere, food, singing and dancing. I can’t wait.”

Underneath all the security concerns, the fear of Taliban attacks, the city Karachi is excited.

But it is an excitement tempered by fear.

All it will take is one big attack on the day of elections and Pakistan’s hard fought democratic handover could be derailed.

Akbar the street hawker articulates a common thought: “We have to vote, and if we don’t, then we can’t complain about what comes next. I’m scared, but I’ll vote come what may”.