Reporters Notebook | PTI Street Protests | Elections 2013

May 2013

Electoral rigging and suspected foul play have soured the experience of the first-ever transition from one elected civilian government to the next. Voters are protesting and demanding justice from the Election Commission Pakistan.

“If you’ve come here to stand in silence, then go home!” A young male Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) worker yelled this to the swelling crowd standing in front of him, his voice hoarse but charged with emotion. In front of him, PTI supporters took up his chant, waving their red and green flags in the late afternoon sun at Lalak Jan Chowk, in DHA, Lahore. Close to this particular venue was one of the contentious polling booths of constituency NA-125, where electoral fraud and rigging had been suspected on May 11th.

Two protests took place on May 12th, in Karachi and Lahore, against electoral rigging in certain polling stations in constituencies NA-125, and NA-250. These were not the only instances where accusations of rigging and electoral fraud were leveled, but these two constituencies remained prominent through constant discussion over social media and consequently on reported media.

A spontaneous protest took shape and form on Sunday evening at Lalak Jan Chowk, where PTI supporters gathered in solidarity bearing their flags, wearing Imran Khan kurtas, t-shirts and scarves, and carrying hand-written posters denouncing the PML(N) candidate Saad Rafique, and electoral rigging. The protest had been organized over social media, using Facebook and Twitter, as well as communicated over SMS. The organizers of the protest were mostly young, and represented the urban PTI support demographic.

To respond to this challenge to their victory, and to perhaps celebrate and gloat over their coup, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) supporters were also present, waving their flags and holding up a few stuffed lions and tigers, which alongside real animals have been an integral part of the PML-N electoral campaign. The party symbol had become a visual element commonly sighted as a stuffed and mounted sign of allegiance atop cars on the streets of Lahore in the run-up to the elections. Loud cries of “Dekho, dekho kaun aya? Sher aya, sher aya!” rent the air, which were countered by the chants of the protestors “Sher ka shikari aya!” – it seemed to be a yelling match between the supporters of both parties. The protesters swelled in size, filling up the park, families were present, children too young to vote, women, old and young alike came together to voice their protest against what they felt was a case of electoral rigging and a loss of their right to vote. “Now that they are the ruling party, they won’t do anything about this. But I have come all the same to voice my protest and my disappointment,” a voter in NA-125 said. “We waited in line for an hour and a half because they had locked the doors and wouldn’t let anyone in. All the while Saad Rafique was inside. Why was he inside a female polling station? What business did he have in there? It was rigging, no questions about it,” Farzana Ahmed, an agitated young female voter who had cast her poll at the S block polling station told me, sharing her personal experience of voting on election day.

It was mostly young male PTI workers that led the chanting, urging the gathering crowds to lend their voices to the cause. There were a few chants demanding re-elections for that constituency, but mostly the chanting would return to PTI specific slogans, such as “Imran teray janisar, beshumaar, beshumaar,” and some that specifically targeted the PML-N leadership. “Choti tind, vaddi tind, Raiwind, Raiwind.” A group of PML-N workers had arrived on motorbikes, and they continuously revved and roared their engines, in attempts to drown out the PTI slogans, in a show of macho display.

“These PTI supporters think NA-125 consists only of DHA. They don’t know of all the other areas, the bastis, the villages, the small housing schemes where they dare not set foot for fear of getting mugged or because it smells bad. All of NA-125 has voted, not just Defence, and it has voted Sher,” a PML-N worker said dismissing the claims of electoral rigging by PTI voters. This is close to the party line, adopted by Saad Rafique, When Rafique was asked why he was in the women’s polling station (as a candidate he said he was legally permitted to enter alone in any polling booth to ensure that voting was free and fair), he said DHA was a posh area where he had not expected any votes, but where the poor and middle class vote bank of NA-125 had secured his victory. This substantiates the critical stereotype of the PTI supporter, who is seen to be bourgeoisie, disaffected, and far removed from the reality of politics in Pakistan. This image was not helped when PTI supporters raged against the electoral results, labeling the Punjabi voters as “jahil”, “illiterate,” and “bikao (easily bought).”

NA-125 consists of Cantt, DHA, Saddar, Walton, Askari, Nishat Colony, Bhatta Chowk, Manawa, Cavalry Grounds, Gohava, Charrar Pind, Qainchi, Chungi Amr Sidhu, RA Bazaar, Nishtar Colony. It is a mixed income area, with a range of class bracket inhabitants. In recent years it has been a PML-N stronghold, although in the past PPP candidates such as Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Aitzaz Ahsan have won large mandates and decisive victories from this constituency as well.

Members of this constituency have previously never been so politicized. In the words of a newscaster who quipped while covering the elections, “DHA is known for its lack of engagement. Residents who previously didn’t even step out for breakfast on the weekend, are now queuing in droves to cast their vote for PTI.” If this is ‘Naya Pakistan,’ then PTI may be headed towards it. While PTI has shown a remarkable effort in creating political awareness and engagement, especially among this class, the status quo created by the years of fluctuating democracy and military rule, and the two party system helped push the voters to the brink in their demand and desire for meaningful change. Whether they get it or not, is now up to them.

“Look at these so-called educated and literate PTI supporters, they keep their women at the forefront, and the men hide behind yelling out their gaalis (insults) to us. We have a sense of honour, we have not brought our women to be part of this spectacle,” said a PML-N worker commenting on the events of the afternoon.

Admittedly, men have carried out much of street politics in Pakistan, but it has been a refreshing and much needed change to see women actively engaging with politics and owning public space alongside men in urban centers.

What will happen to the PTI voter now?

The PTI campaign was charged with adrenaline and raw emotion. It sought to change Pakistan, and usher in an era of new politics. With ‘Naya Pakistan’ as its rallying slogan, people dared to hope and began to dream of change. Imran Khan, it seemed, was the messiah that people had been yearning for, he could bring the change that was so desperately needed. The PTI campaign reached out to a new vote base, which was at once ripe for change and yet politically disengaged. This populace was formed into an energized vote bank, filled with the promise of possibility. When these aspirations soured as victories could not be secured, what will become of the PTI supporter? There are two ways to go, one that this voter will sink into despair and become more depoliticized than ever before, turning its back on a system, which they had tried to change.The other way is that this supporter, who is now engaging with grassroots politics, will continue being political and working to build a mandate, and will stay engaged with democracy and continue to fight for their rights and remember their responsibilities. This will prove to all PTI detractors that bourgeoisie or in opposition, the dream of Naya Pakistan will be lived.

It is not just the PTI supporters that are ricocheting with energy and that have been taking to the streets with frenzied excitement. Lahore was bright and alive, festooned with campaign posters, throbbing with music, and made festive by election fever. It seemed as if yet again there were only two parties competing for the win; PPP was conspicuous by its absence, its place filled up by PTI supporters who had taken over the city in their zeal, vying against PML-N. After the election results had been announced, cries of “Sher, Sher” were ubiquitous all over the city, echoing well into the hours of early morning. And, there was still energy to spare on Sunday. Where do you go after a week of continuous festivity and uproar and celebrations on the streets? The current mood is ripe for confrontation between the supporters of both parties.

Unfortunately, the protest quickly turned sour because of growing animosity between both camps. Until the evening of May 11th, after votes had been cast, and polling was over, supporters from both parties were celebrating side by side, and had previously been campaigning side by side, often raising tongue-in-cheek slogans and responding to each other’s presence but overall the atmosphere, while charged, remained free of violence and hatred. On Sunday, this was not so. As the protesters and counter-protesters edged near each other, scuffles and fights erupted, which were broken up by members from both parties and police. At one point, as the evening wore on, members of police formed a human chain separating the two groups from one another. Tension however did not abate but continued to rise as broadcast by news stations. Large groups of PML-N workers arrived, brandishing sticks, and the scene quickly turned violent. By this time, the protesters had clearly crossed some line of acceptability–if a protest goes on long enough, or keeps growing in size, than it poses a threat to the establishment, no matter how peaceful it may be. This was evidently the case with the protest at Lalak Jan Chowk.

Until late at night, verbal and physical brawls were being witnessed at Lalak Jan Chowk, in DHA Lahore. PTI supporters have vowed to keep their protest alive till some kind of action is taken by ECP: either a re-voting, or the disqualification of PML-N candidate Saad Rafique.

The protest in Karachi at Teen Talwar, was addressed to the Election Commission of Pakistan, to take immediate action against rigging and electoral fraud witnessed yesterday at various polling stations. Karachiites had come out to protest rigging and coercion orchestrated by MQM workers. Here, it wasn’t just PTI supporters that swelled the ranks of the protesters, but also supporters of independent candidates like Jibran Nasir (NA-250, PS-113). The nature of the protest became markedly different when placards such as “No parties today, only Pakistan” were displayed and the protest was mounted against the breakdown of democracy and denial of voter rights.

Was it because of the unabashed nature of the rigging in Karachi? Or because of Muttahida Qaumi Movement’s (MQM) undisguised play at democracy and its flirtations with violence that the people of Karachi are long familiar with and have rejected? Or is it a revival of local politics in urban spaces, and a response to local issues resulting in a rise of independent candidates who are able to effectively lead a mandate? These are some of the factors that contribute to the two protests being markedly different from one another.

MQM leader Altaf Hussain in his televised address (from London) threatened the protestors at Teen Talwaar with disruption and bloodshed. This did not deter the protestors but rather spurred them on in their determination to demand their democratic rights. Reports of firing were shared on social media, and of arrests and subsequent release of the suspects by Karachi police.

Meanwhile, in Lahore the protest underwent a transformation. It moved up from Lalak Jan Chowk and the park close by, to occupy an intersection on Ghazi Road, and has assumed the proportions of a dharna. Tents have been erected in the middle of the intersection, and there was a steady stream of people coming and going, bringing food and water. Police have been deployed on twelve hours shifts, sometimes longer, depending on the situation. I visited on the evening of May 14th, there were about 50 policemen present, most of whom had been there since 8am. There were no PML(N) workers to counter-protest, and the protest itself had dwindled down to less than 500 people. Women sat on chairs and on carpets spread beneath the tents. The men grouped on the periphery, and in loud chants called for re-elections. “I am disappointed with the way that the protest was handled, I don’t think we were organized enough. The issue was about electoral rigging, not the defeat of PTI–and somewhere these two issues become confused,” said a PTI supporter who had been a part of the protest till yesterday. “I was also ashamed to learn that while arrangements for food and water had been made for all the protestors, the police deployed for the protection of the protestors went hungry. This is not Naya Pakistan.”

It remains unclear as to the role of PTI leadership and the organization of the sit-in. While initially the protest was called due to angry and disappointed voters who were frustrated by not being able to cast their votes, or witnessed attempts made towards rigging the ballot, it has now been four days since then. While PTI candidates including Mohammad Madni (NA-119), Ahsan Rasheed (PP-156), Fouzia Kasuri and Omar Sarfaraz Cheema visited the sit-in, the organization did not shift from the supporters and PTI workers to the leadership. Moreover, PTI candidate for NA-125, Hamid Khan came to the sit-in, and asked the protestors not to block traffic and contain their protest between the hours of 6pm to 8pm. The protesters, however, have refused to end the sit-in till their demands for re-election have been met. Hamid Khan and Saad Rafique had a televised engagement where Khan did accuse Rafique of rigging, and tampering with the votes cast to tilt the result in his favour. Even so, the petition filed by PTI for a recounting and a verification of the vote in NA-125 has been rejected by the Returning Officer.

It remains to be seen what the results of these motivated protests will be, and how these will be followed up through more protests and other means in the days to come. At the same time, results have been announced and celebrations are underway, and a transition of power is expected in the coming days. However, the handing over of power could prove more tricky than the ECP and the caretaker government may have conceived. In Karachi, constituents of NA-250 will go to the polls again on Sunday, May 19th. It is not enough to hope for no rigging and no coercion at the polling stations, effective measures must be taken by ECP to ensure the safety of the voters and the sanctity of the ballot.

Hira Nabi is a blogger with Express Tribune, and a graduate in film, gender studies and post-colonial identity.


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