With less than a week to go before Election Day, all the big political parties are beginning to sound the same: “We will give you gas, electricity, water!” thunder their leaders during their impressive election rallies. For those of us who can’t make up their minds as to who to vote for, Kuch Khaas, the center for arts, culture and dialogue in Islamabad, held an election series this week and for one session they invited the youth representatives of all the major parties running from NA 48 and 49 (the federal capital gets two seats for the National Assembly). One of the basic questions the young representatives of the PML (N), PPP, PTI and the ANP were asked by the moderator and organiser of the event, Nilofer Qazi, was “why should we vote for you?”
Briefly, the PML (N) spokesman, Mohd Asim said “because we have the most experienced team. We have vision and an agenda and we are leading in the polls. There is a huge difference between running a country and running a NGO”, a dig at their biggest rival, the PTI, whose leader Imran Khan set up a charitable cancer hospital. The PTI youth spokeswoman, Freeha Shaukat explained that “ethics is missing from Pakistani politics” and PTI is all about ethics and providing a “platform for change… we are the only party to hold proper internal elections and introduce policy based manifestoes”. The PPP spokesman Farhad Jarral claimed they have focused on “strengthening democracy in the last five years … we have improved the 1973 Constitution and given power to the provinces so they can deliver better”. The ANP spokesman, Shakir Ali, said they have undertaken social and fiscal reforms in KPK, with an emphasis on population planning, education, environment and tourism.
The organiser Nilofer Qazi with PML (N) spokesman, Mohd Asim. -Photo by author
The ANP has put up a candidate in Islamabad because many Pathans have migrated to Islamabad and Karachi because of terrorism. The Jamaat-e-Islami, whose candidate Mian Aslam from NA 48 is actually doing well in Islamabad, did not send a representative. Somehow Julius Salik, who is running as an independent candidate from NA 48 was overlooked.
Before the question and answer session began, a short video was shown of Nilofer visiting the various villages and peri-urban areas around Islamabad to ask what their main issues were and she heard the residents repeatedly complain about the lack of electricity, gas and water. Shayan Afzal Khan, the owner of Kuch Khaas tried to focus the discussion on wider issues, saying “unfortunately all the talk surrounding these elections is about the shortages of gas and electricity, but people don’t seem to realise that there are bigger issues facing Pakistan today, such as the dismal state of the education sector, the population explosion and the threat of terrorism”.
Given that terrorism is probably the single biggest threat the country is facing today, I asked the panelists what their parties plan to do about it. First of all, why does Imran Khan insist that it is not “our war” even though the Chief of Army Staff, General Kayani, has categorically stated that it is indeed our war? “I’m glad you asked this question,” said the PTI spokeswoman. “Initially, after 9/11 when it started, it was not our war. Imran Khan had predicted then that the war on terror would only worsen the situation and that is exactly what happened. It is very much our war now, but what we are saying is that we should not take dictation from the US and that the drone attacks have to end. In order for us to own this war, we have to be calling the shots. It must be decided in our sovereign borders”.
The youth representatives of PTI, ANP, PML(N) and PPP. -Photo by author
The ANP has of course been the major target of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) who is now targeting all parties with “secular leanings” like the PPP, MQM and ANP. “Over 700 of our activists have been killed since 9/11” explained their spokesman. “When the ANP took over Khyber Pukthunkwa they started reconstructing many of the schools destroyed by the Taliban and also opened up around eight universities. This upset the Taliban so we became the frontline party and we are directly targeted for our openly anti-Taliban, anti-terrorist stance”.
I then asked the PML (N) representative why they are not being targeted by the Taliban? Have they made some secret deal with them? “Absolutely not, if we had any understanding with the militant groups then why would we award Sheikh Waqas a ticket from Jhang so that he could contest against the chief of the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamat (ASWJ) Maulana Muhammad Ahmad Ludhianvi? We prefer candidates who are against terrorism and believe me our leaders are getting the same threats from the militant groups as everyone else. Terrorists are everyone’s enemy, they are Pakistan’s enemy”.
As for the PPP, why couldn’t they come up with a comprehensive national strategy against terrorism when they were in power? “We called for an All Parties Conference along with the ANP to adopt a collective strategy to eradicate terrorism and militancy, but the right wing parties were not interested in doing anything about it or owning the war as their own,” explained the PPP spokesman.
The talk ended with the young panelists thanking the organiser Nilofer for inviting them on her own initiative and they made some interesting observations; the PPP spokesman agreed that the memory of the late Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto would not be enough to get them the votes of the youth today, while the PML (N) spokesman pointed out that it was heartening “to see the new generation thinking about their country and being interested in politics”. The PTI spokeswoman, however, summed up the civilized discussion adroitly by concluding, “No one party will dominate these elections, so we will all have to work together – it will be a collaborative effort after May 11th and we need to focus on what is good for Pakistan”. If voters are not put off by the recent violence and actually turn out to exercise their right to vote on Election Day, it looks like the real winner on May 11th 2013 is going to be democracy.
The writer is an award-winning environmental journalist based in Islamabad, who also covers climate change and health issues. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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