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Leading journalist comments on Pakistan's historic election

In May, the general elections in Pakistan returned two-time former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his party - the Pakistan Muslim League - to office. Sharif faced off against Imran Khan, a former Cricket star turned politician whose promises of reform resonated amongst younger voters.

Despite a heightened state of election-related violence and insecurity, voter turnout stood at an historic high of 55 percent.

While Pakistan’s elections and smooth democratic transition have been deemed a success, reports by some observers cited irregularities, vote rigging and intimidation.

Kamal Siddiqi, a 2012 Draper Hills Summer Fellow alumni, covered the elections as editor of The Express Tribune, a national English language daily newspaper published from Peshawar, Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad.

In the interview that follows, Siddiqi comments on this historic election and what it means for Pakistan's democratic future.

 

Were you surprised by the outcome of the Pakistani elections?

No, I was not surprised with the fact that Nawaz Sharif's party won a thumping majority. This had been predicted by most of us given that the three other major parties - the Pakistan People's Party, the Awami National Party and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement - were not campaigning because of terrorist attacks on their rallies.

I was surprised, however, at the fact that Imran Khan's party - Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) - did so well in Karachi and in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the northwestern province of Pakistan.

 

Why do you think Nawaz Sharif was re-elected to a third term as prime minister as opposed to Imran Khan or Ameen Faheem? 

There was a genuine desire for change, especially in Pakistan's most populous province - Punjab. People were fed up with power outages, rising crime and stories of government corruption. Since Punjab is Sharif's home province and it has 50 percent of the seats of parliament, that change was inevitable.

 

Imran Khan seemed to be a darling of the international media, was it the same for the Pakistani media?

Kamal Siddiqi during the 2012 Draper Hills Summer Fellows Program at Stanford University. Photo Credit: Rod Searcey

He may have been a darling for the Western media but for the local media Imran Khan and his supporters were a headache. They are new to the electoral process and yet they are the least tolerant. In our experience, Imran Khan gave a statement - which we published - and the next thing we knew, we were being accused of yellow journalism. They have a lot to learn.

 

What was it like to cover the election for The Express Tribune?

This time around, the elections were very violent and I told my reporters - especially those in Peshawar - not to take any risks. At the same time we enjoyed reporting on the election, especially by using social media. We got a lot of feedback and stories from public sources who sent us clips from their phones and tweeted about their experiences. A lot of the information was instant and in areas where there were problems, like the late opening of polling stations, we were inundated with people calling and texting. It was clearly much more transparent than previous polls.

 

What contributed to the high voter turnout?

One of the achievements of Imran Khan's party was that it motivated the youth. Also, this was the second general election without any interruption. This also helped people to get involved in the process.

 

What issues were most important for the average Pakistani voter when they went to the polls?

The law and order situation and crime were issues that many leaders talked about as was good governance and the fight against corruption. Power outages and the state of the economy also featured in the debates. Finally, the drone strikes by the U.S. helped some parties garner votes especially in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

 

How do you think the violence surrounding the elections has affected Pakistan's political climate, if at all?

The violence gave an edge to the right of center parties like Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League party and Imran Khan's Tehreek-e-Insafparty whose rallies were not attacked. The three main left of center parties - the ruling Pakistan People's Party and its coalition allies - were affected by the consistent attacks and bomb blasts at their rallies and their election offices. This became one factor in their poor showing at the polls.

 

How does this election impact the future of democracy in Pakistan, if at all?

The manner in which an independent election commission conducted the elections, how the polls were held, how power was transferred and how all parties accepted the results have been very encouraging. People by and large have accepted democracy as the best way to move ahead and by turning up in large numbers they rejected the call by extremists like the Taliban to reject this form of government.

On August 16 the Karachi office of Siddiqi's "The Express Tribune" was attacked by gunmen who fired shots injuring two staff members. You can read more here to learn about the incident and how the media are often trapped in the line of fire.