Pakistan Votes: The View from Karachi

May 13, 2013

An old lady being wheeled out of a polling station in Karachi gleefully displays the ink on her thumb as proof of her successfully casting a vote in Pakistan's elections, May 11, 2013 (Reza Jan)

Pakistanis on Saturday went to the polls in historic manner to realize a dream that had remained unfulfilled for over 65 years: to peacefully and democratically replace a popularly-elected government that had completed a full, uninterrupted term with another of their choice. Pakistanis have achieved that goal with gusto. Two-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party soundly defeated their principal rival, the magnetic former sports star Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party. Voter turnout in Pakistan was impressive at 60 percent, given that it has not crossed 45 percent since 1970.

That said, parts of the country did experience significant problems with voting. Karachi, Pakistan’s financial metropolis and home to 18 million inhabitants—one-tenth of the national population—was the center of major polling irregularities, voter intimidation and out-and-out rigging in addition to militant violence. Problems were so rampant that in Karachi’s constituency NA-250, where I voted, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) was forced to suspend the results and declare that it would hold fresh polls at 43 separate sites in the city.

At many locations, there were documented reports of clear voter intimidation, ballot-box tampering and “ballot-stuffing.” The list of incidents includes, among others, political party goons showing up armed at voting stations and threatening voters in areas where the majority of people were plumping for a rival candidate; attempting, often successfully, to steal or tamper with ballot boxes; and visibly installing themselves inside voting rooms and stuffing ballot boxes with ballots in favor of their own party.

Many stations were assigned more people than could be reasonably processed by the number of officials on site. While polling stations in NA-250 should not have averaged more than 2,000 registered voters at a single site, my polling station saw estimates of between six and ten thousand people line up outside its doors over the course of the day. Numerous people reported being told upon arrival that their polling stations had been changed without notification.

Whereas in some Karachi constituencies the entire voting experience took twenty minutes, it took hours in NA-250. Many polling stations opened several hours late because polling officials who were to deliver ballot boxes and oversee proceedings had been kidnapped that morning by unknown individuals. I waited in line over six hours to vote; others waited even longer. At some stations, people who had been waiting twelve hours were told that voting at their location had been canceled entirely and would be rescheduled for a later day. Analysts and voters alike suspected that hurdles to voting were deliberately being created by opposing parties in the hopes that voters would eventually tire of waiting and go home.

The irregularities were most common in those constituencies, such as NA-250, where the locally dominant party, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), was weakest and facing stiff challenges from other candidates, primarily from the PTI and the highly regarded former mayor of Karachi, Naimatullah Khan of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) party.

Most of Karachi is dominated by the MQM which has developed a reputation over the years for working impressively and tirelessly for its constituents, especially those who share the party’s “Mohajir” (immigrant from India at the time of partition) background, but funding itself and its leadership through blatant extortion, land-grabbing and other mafia-like activities. It tolerates no rivals and is famous for using street muscle and an armed militant wing to assassinate opponents and intimidate those who stand in its way. It has engaged in long-running feuds with the ethnic Pashtun-dominated Awami National Party and the significant Pashtun minority in Karachi, as well with political leaders and mafias associated with the formerly-ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) in Karachi’s Lyari neighborhood. The MQM jealously guards its control of Karachi politics; its running reputation and the fact that it was facing very real challenges from the PTI and JI in the affected constituencies mean that it is currently the center of most allegations of voter fraud in the city.

Still, it was heartening to see the population turn out in force to vote, defiantly refusing to be intimidated or go home until people had successfully cast their ballots. Young, first-time voters dominated the crowds and women came out in large numbers. Enthusiasm levels were high and, in neighborhoods affected by voting irregularities, voters refused to be cowed. People stood for hours in the scorching Karachi heat, not leaving until they had availed themselves of their democratic right. Of those who did leave, many came back later in the day to rejoin the lines of voters. Crowds largely remained orderly and peaceful even when, in some cases, activists from opposing parties attempted to stir up trouble. One man was brought in to vote on a stretcher and I saw several old women wheeled out of polling stations, proudly displaying their inky thumbs.

Voting across the rest of the country went off relatively smoothly, at least in comparison to Karachi. While allegations of voting irregularities were raised in Sindh and Punjab, they do not appear to have been as serious as in Karachi. So far, NA-250 is the only constituency being re-polled by the ECP, and foreign observers termed Pakistan’s poll to be “relatively fair.”

Prime Minister-in-waiting Nawaz Sharif’s mandate will be strong; he has received enough seats to form a government without needing the crutch of a coalition. That also means he will have no excuse if he does not deliver on election promises and steer the country through the many challenges it faces, from its sputtering economy to rampant domestic terrorism. Pakistanis have shown enthusiasm in calling for change through the ballot box, but whether that enthusiasm for democracy will persist may depend heavily on whether Sharif can deliver the goods.