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Pakistan elections: What the diplomats say


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“Don’t be impressed with this display of wealth,” said the imam to his congregation. Placing his hand on his heart, he added: “What you have here is stronger than these cars and bungalows. Allah is with you.”

This was not a mosque but a pavement in a leafy Islamabad neighbourhood in F-7. The evening prayers had just finished. The young imam was now addressing his congregation, mostly construction workers and shop assistants.

Although most of the worshippers were older than him, he seemed to have them in a trance. “Don’t be ashamed of your poverty. What you have here (again placing his hand on the heart) is more precious.”

I was walking to the Tuscany Courtyard restaurant to meet some diplomats who were interested in discussing the forthcoming elections with a group of Pakistani journalists.

“Politics and elections will not make much difference to your lives. Your prayers will,” said the imam.

As I turned into the street where the restaurant is, I entered another world. Air-conditioned rooms, comfortable sofas, seafood and red wine, I felt as if I had walked into a wonderland through a looking glass.

Although I was now with my hosts and other guests, I could not shake the imam and his congregation out of my mind.

“Will the elections make any difference to people’s lives?” I asked, addressing no one in particular.

“Why do you ask?” said a diplomat.

I explained what I saw.

The diplomat paused and said: “Many Western diplomats in Islamabad feel that such people should be encouraged to join the political process.”

He paused, waited to see the impact of his remarks on us and added: “Even the Taliban should be asked to do so. I mean those who are willing to lay down their weapons.”

Another diplomat said that if Pakistan failed to find an answer to this problem, it will never become a stable state.

“It is criminal how you treat your own people. Don’t you see how they live?” said a Central Asian diplomat.

“Is it different in Central Asia?” I asked.

He smiled and said: “This is not about scoring points in a debate. You are a journalist, highlight these issues.”

Another diplomat complained that the Pakistani media usually focus on non-issues.

This was the third diplomatic dinner I had attended since I came to Islamabad two weeks ago. In each, the conversation revolved around the elections.

“No, I still do not believe the elections will be held on May 11,” said Wajid Shah, an Islamabad shopkeeper when I asked him who he would vote for. I smiled and said, “They will be held as scheduled. Do vote.”

The next day, while driving to my first diplomatic reception in Islamabad, I had already forgotten Wajid and his remarks. I should not have. One out of four Pakistanis I met at the reception also shared Wajid’s concern.

Interestingly, most diplomats disagreed. “Elections will be held as scheduled,” said an East European ambassador. “Nobody wants to delay the elections, least of all the military.”

Another diplomat said that postponing the elections now, on any excuse, will cause much violence which will destabilise the country. “The military, which is busy fighting the Taliban, does not want more instability,” he said while explaining why he agreed with the East European ambassador.

But some Pakistanis remained unconvinced. Their fear was partly rooted in past experience. PPP’s is the first freely elected government in the country which completed its tenure. Another election and the transfer of power to those elected means continuation of democracy. This obviously is highly unusual for most Pakistanis.

“Do you think the military will watch quietly as you push it out of the power equation?” asked one of the skeptics when I tried to convince him that the election and the transfer of power will all happen as scheduled.

A Western diplomat explained that the Pakistani military had made a conscious decision to stay out of politics and will stick to this decision.

“It will change its mind only if they felt that the political process is threatening national security,” said the diplomat, “which it is not.”

Another diplomat explained that the army would like to continue the arrangement it had with President Zardari, which allowed it to influence decisions on national security issues.

According to him the next elected government will also like to continue this arrangement. They need the army to fight the extremists and also to deal with border threats. “In a country sandwiched between India and Afghanistan, and bordering countries like China and Iran, the military will always retain its influence,” said the diplomat.

The discussion then moved to who may win the elections. All agreed that no party can win a clear majority, although PML-N may win more seats than others.

PPP, they said, is likely to be the second on the list, followed by the PTI.

Some argued that Imran Khan remains a dark horse and may win a reasonable number of seats if he succeeds in bringing his voters to the polling stations.


The author is a correspondent for Dawn, based in Washington, DC.



The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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Anwar Iqbal is a correspondent for Dawn, based in Washington, DC.

Comments (17) Closed

Asadullah Chaudhary Apr 13, 2013 04:40pm
I think PTI will compete with PMLN and PPP will be far away. If it isn't like this then our nation needs another 5 years like the recent ones, which will open their eyes!!!
Syed Ahmed Apr 13, 2013 05:25pm
The forthcoming elections will not make any difference to common people
HNY2013 Apr 13, 2013 09:34pm
Some argued that Imran Khan remains a dark horse and may win a reasonable number of seats if he succeeds in bringing his voters to the polling stations.
Mustafa Apr 14, 2013 03:50am
Excellent timely article, I strongly believe, and I wish I am wrong, no democracy or democratic election will bring peace and stability to Pakistan. These are the biggest dangers in Pakistan. 1. There is a saying in Farsi
Fayzee Apr 14, 2013 05:35am
Come what may, the elections will be held on time. And God forbids, if it does not happen then we should forget democracy once and for all.
pakistani Apr 14, 2013 08:27am
Hoping just suddenly after election things going to turned out by moving some magic stick is not possible but it will be gradual change, bringing right government only can save Pakistan by giving them time of around 5 to 10 years and then that change will reach to the poor class of our society as well. But i don't think next government will complete it's 5 year term because of current worst situations of 5 year continuous loot and plunder of country's resources in the last 5 year.
kausik Apr 14, 2013 10:21am
This is a great achievement voting itself is magical and as the diplomat said even Taliban should be encouraged to contest and respect the polls.Democracy is crucial to Pakistan.I still remember holding a a empty wooden ballot box in 1954 in India as a 12yr old kid without understanding the importance but ever since i could vote felt special and happy and accomplished something
Agha Ata (USA) Apr 14, 2013 01:46pm
Just like green leaves of all grass and trees, we are all green but so different in shades. "Will it rain or will it not rain? Or would there be cattle and sheep and plaza builders who would eat us up or cut us down? Or would there be a long drought with no divine mercy in sight? We keep sitting in our beds, swinging with the breeze, whichever direction it shoves us, pretending to be dancing with Nature and keep thinking. But who knows! We know nothing. Sometimes the past experience just deceives historians and journalists; it did when Pakistan came into existence; it happened again when Bangladesh came into existence; it came when Asama Bin Laden was killed; it came when Taliban appeared in history, and it might come again when out of the mist comes a man who says "I will l free you of all this mess and give you a new Pakistan." But who knows? I may be wrong, but I could be right as well. I am just a leaf like any other you mentioned in your article. :)
Iqbal Saleh Muhammad Apr 14, 2013 02:32pm
One diplomat is very right when he said that the Pakistan Army will not exert itself so long as it feels that the state security is not theatened by elections or its consequential developments. I also beleive that the only choice available is nothing but that the elections are held on time. Are we not experiencing already continual mayhem? Big Bang was an unimaginable and immeasurable shattering event, but see how the planets are now swimming in the cosmos with seemingly serene and peaceful manner.
No hope. Apr 14, 2013 05:05pm
Mustafa although you are right but you are not telling us anything new,most of us know and understand the situation but how can the minority(educated) influence the majority(the uneducated and mostly poor) We are relied on the leaders who are basically goondas(in alot of cases) and they control their areas(again something we already know) So when we elect a leader,it is suppose to be based on how he will help his/her fellow countrymen,but instead its all about winning seats,keeping control and doing whats best for their parties.Thats the law of the land,the rich control little people and little people control the poor and the needy,welcome to ASIA and the reality.So will this election change anything in the country,NO,at least not in the next 10 years or so.and thats just a start.Its quite possible that if these civilians(elected governments) cannot move the country forward,there would be riots and eventually the army would take over and force law and order.I truly believe that in order to set examples and change the way its always been some need to pay the price for their roll in raping the country for its money and abusing the powers and corruption,then and only then we may get the attention of the political parties and slow down the process of corruption.But in order to do that,everyone needs to be on the same page and that right there is flat out impossible because of each parties own personal interests.Bottom line,not much progress in Pakistan.Poor will always remain poor and the corrupt will always remain in power.
No hope. Apr 14, 2013 05:16pm
Pakistan cannot afford another 5 years like the last 5,the consequences would be tragic for our nation.
Mustafa Apr 15, 2013 12:21am
How many time did you vote in your life?
MOHAMMAD Apr 15, 2013 02:57am
Mustafa Apr 15, 2013 04:11am
Mohammad, you are saying exactly what the "Mullahs" say in Pakistan. The truth is Allah commanded human beings to use brain and do right things. Allah will not change the conditions for you unless you take actions to change your conditions. Have you heard the Hadith. A man left his camel untied before he went to sleep in his tent for the night. When he woke up in the morning, his camel was gone. He went to the Holy Prophet (PBUH) and complained to him that "I trusted Allah to take care of my camel when I was sleeping.
Samy Merchant Apr 15, 2013 04:36am
So long as only Western "educated," elite Pakistanis are running the country, Pakistan will never prosper, whether this elite is Bilawal Zardari, Imran Khan, Pervez Mushraf, Altaf Hussein, Nawaz Sharif-you name him! Because these so called "educated" people don't know the basics of Islam. They have never studied Islam formally, in a reputable Islamic institution; to elect a person like that is committing national suicide.
S.H.Akbari Apr 15, 2013 08:39am
Did Quaed-e-Azam, Liaqat Ali Khan, Sardar Nishtar, Fatema Jinnah the great leaders who founded the country study Islam in the sense you mean Mr. Merchant ? Zulfiqar Bhutto brought the present Constitution, F.M. Ayub Khan who made the country progressive, General P. Musharraf who brought the country to a shining platform; did they studied Islam in the sense you mean. Name any one otherwise who according to you studied Islam and put the country even near to progress. Spending a few days in Raiwind or Dhaka does not make any one Muslim as it should be. Make the country as our leader Quaed-e-Azam preached. May God bless you !
Shaheen Apr 15, 2013 08:56am
For a starter, I wish your name was less "western". Secondly, as a Pakistani national, you and millions others like yourself have had 65 years in which not to have voted a leader of a western leaning. And more seriously, the religious parties have had a fair share of exposure in the meantime, why haven't they made an iota of a difference. Now please don't give the excuse that we have been ruled by the military or it is the US who is indirectly running the country that has been the obstacle.