Lahore, Pakistan – Pakistan’s election on Wednesday has made headlines for pre-poll rigging, political engineering and turf wars between the military, the judiciary and the politicians.
But the catchy negativity has clouded the energy and political awareness which can be felt from the streets of Karachi through the bazaars of Lahore to the tea stalls of Peshawar and Quetta.
I’ve covered Pakistan’s elections for nearly two decades and each time witnessed much room for improvement.
This time though, people seem a bit more aware, a bit more cognisant of the reality, regardless of who they support.
That awareness and maturity seem like a sign for better days ahead for the nuclear-powered, Muslim-majority state, home to more than 200 million people.
There are countless people who are trying to bring about change, so here are just a few glimpses I’ve come across.
The battle for narratives that ensued was vicious, personal and uncouth. But, when all the attention was focused on verbal attacks by point-scoring politicians, the youngest leader from the three main parties – Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, son of assassinated Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and controversial President Asif Zardari, appeared to keep his cool.
To the surprise of many political boffins, he managed to pull crowds at rallies in Punjab and Sindh. But the biggest difference was his focus on substance, turning his attention to policies and remaining detached from personal attacks.
Although his party has been in power in southern Pakistan for decades and has a dismal record of providing the basics, Bilawal’s message seems to be of a new man taking charge with the will to improve things.
Another young candidate in a political arena of seasoned politicians is Jibran Nasir, who has been courageous in challenging bigotry upfront.
His campaign has been attacked by religious zealots but he seems to have maintained his composure and stuck to his message of promises to improve things for his constituents.
He is a rare breed of young politicians who entered the arena without any financial muscle, family or political backing.
Pakistan also saw a 12-year-old standing up to campaign after his father was implicated in corruption.
The young man and his sister became a symbol of resistance for the Nawaz league as they campaigned on behalf of their father. He was arrested by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) for alleged corruption in relation to a drinking water contract. Their party, PML-N, accuses the NAB of being used as a tool to implicate politicians.
Qamar-Ul Islam Raja’s father was arrested on corruption charges just one day after he became the challenger against the disgruntled former Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar – who left Nawaz’s party after the PML-N supremo insisted on challenging the judiciary and the military establishment.
In his speeches, the 12-year old dodged tricky questions and insisted on following the party line – not a small feat for someone his age.
Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) will vote for the first time as a governed area – after seven decades of independence, this is no longer just an administered tribal belt.
This region witnessed unprecedented political campaigning. People can now vote for provincial representatives and elect their own local bodies. The biggest change has been in the security situation.
Even before the so-called US “war on terror”, this area was considered home to Taliban, al-Qaeda and fighters from Uzbekistan to Chechnya.
But after years of military operations, people have a semblance of a normal life.
Why is this significant? Because now tribal elders, drug lords, smugglers and all those who used to exercise immense control know the people can challenge them with the power of the vote.
Being Pakistan’s most underdeveloped area, newly emerging politicians and leaders can prove their mettle by getting rid of deprivation and building industries, schools and health facilities.
“If they lose to me, they feel it will be a bigger loss of losing to a woman. That’s why only my posters are being torn and my campaign being targeted,” Raheela Hameed Khan Durrani told me from Quetta.
The speaker of the provincial assembly of Balochistan is contesting on a regular seat – instead of reserved seats for women – in her constituency.
Balochistan province, which saw the worse violence in the elections, was rarely given attention in the local media.
Political activists complain that due to the inability of Balochistan’s small political parties to afford expensive campaigns on TV and print media they were neglected.
At least 25 women are contesting for general seats; seven for National assembly and 18 for provincial assembly.
Durrani says the security threats made her take precautions in the conservative society. But she didn’t leave her campaigning and says she went to far-flung mountainous areas to convince voters to come out and vote for her.