MICHAEL Kugelman
MICHAEL Kugelman

UNITED NATIONS: Voting trends in the February 8 elections demonstrated that there is a strong desire for change among the Pakistani youth, according to a senior US diplomat.

The remarks by Elizabeth Horst, a senior US diplomat overseeing Pakistan affairs at the State Depart­ment, came during a seminar held on the sidelines of an ongoing UN debate on the nexus between gender equality and human development.

Organised by the Muslim American Leadership Alliance, the discussion held last week saw active participation from the Pakistani-American community, with a number of speakers and attendees raising questions about the prevailing political scenario in the country.

Exhibiting diplomatic finesse, the State Department official refrained from making overtly political statements, instead underscoring the existing engagement of the Pakistani diaspora in addressing social issues in their homeland, while urging further efforts to empower women.

Kugelman says Washington’s ‘perceived indifference’ towards democracy in Pakistan could harden negative attitudes among diaspora

She highlighted the transformative shift evidenced by the 2024 elections, saying: “A generational change has happened. I say generational change because the most recent election in Pakistan has demonstrated that there is a youth right now that’s hungry for change.”

She argued that this demographic would soon constitute a majority in Pakistan, and that would be an opportunity to see a different way of doing things. “So, encourage everyone who is engaged with Pakistan to leverage that as well,” she added.

 ELIZABETH Horst
ELIZABETH Horst

Ms Horst’s remarks encouraged a PTI supporter in the audience to ask: “How can we discuss equality when our right to choose our leadership is denied? We cast our votes for Imran [Khan], yet we’re being pressured to accept the same old corrupt leaders,” he asked.

“I am not going to touch any political part of this, but I think there should be no excuses for working towards gender equality. There’s just everybody in this room and everybody around the world who can simply try to lift up women and girls,” Ms Horst responded.

Her comments seem to endorse the suggestion that instead of clinging to election-related disputes, Pakistan should move ahead and fix other pressing issues as well, such as its ailing economy.

Another speaker, Dawood Ghaznavi, proposed enhancing the connection between the diaspora and Pakistan by enabling them to participate in elections.

“Pakistani expatriates represent one of the most politically engaged diasporas globally. Allowing them to vote will further incentivize their involvement in contributing to the development of their homeland,” he asserted.

Michael Kugelman, a leading expert in South Asian affairs associated with the Wilson Centre, provided his insights on the political situation in Pakistan during the post-seminar media session.

He emphasised that the recent election did not restore political stability, instead resulted in rise of polarisation in the country. He noted that a significant portion of the public questioned the legitimacy of the election results, as well as the new government.

Mr Kugelman also pointed out the popularity of the opposition, particularly Imran Khan and the PTI, despite what he called efforts by the state to marginalise them.

He pointed out that this would pose challenges for the new government, which aims to stabilise the economy amidst a tense political climate.

He suggested that reconciliation between the opposition and the ruling coalition could provide a way forward, but doubted this was feasible in the current scenario, with heightened polarisation.

He proposed focusing on economic stabilisation as the most practical option for restoring stability, advocating for measures to lower inflation and provide relief to the common man.

The Wilson Centre scholar also noted that the Biden administration had modest expectations for the election and emphasised the importance of a multi-party presence, despite a disconnect between public expectations in Pakistan and US government objectives.

Mr Kugelman acknowledged the significance of perceptions, expressing concern that the perceived indifference of the US government towards democracy in their country could harden negative attitudes among many Pakistanis.

Published in Dawn, March 18th, 2024

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