Pakistani voters, fearful of safety, urged to vote

February 17th, 2008 - 12:37 pm ICT by admin  

A file-photo of Nawaz Sharif
By Devirupa Mitra
Rawalpindi, Jan 17 (IANS) With just hours to go for Monday’s crucial polls, Pakistan’s 80 million voters are being urged to cast aside fears of violence and go to vote by civil society groups through advertisements on private television channels, FM radio as well as text messages. The media of choice for the bigger civil society groups, flush with Western funding, are the numerous private television channels that are doing round-the-clock blanket election coverage.

A TV spot by Free And Fair Election Network, an umbrella Pakistani civil rights group, shows a poster of a flower with three petals, representing the three wings of a democratic group that is only alive due to the “strong roots” of the public. “So, we are the one who will keep democracy alive,” said the actor in the ad.

Similarly, another ad spot says that choosing the right candidate could be the only answer to stop the violence.

While private televisions channels across Pakistan are delivering a simple message, use your vote, the official government channel shows a more basic missive - lose with grace.

In fact, while analysts writing in Pakistani newspapers predict a low turnout, they have also expressed apprehension about the reaction from opposition supporters in case the results show a tilt towards the ruling party.

Although polling stations will be guarded by two rings of security, the spectre of violence has made voters uncertain about exercising their right, and many plan to keep themselves glued to the television and radio to check the temperature before venturing out of their homes.

“There is so much entrenched support between the two sides, that violence is always at a trigger,” said a grocery shopkeeper, Arif Khan, in the congested twin city of the Pakistani capital, a candle lighting his shop as he waited out the hour of compulsory power outage.

The outside of his shop is plastered with political posters of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), with a royal Bengal tiger perched majestically on the shoulders of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

At an outlet of Kentucky Fried Chicken, two childhood friends were sitting at the window seat, as they looked out onto a dark main road, potholed and barely lit by street lights.

“I will certainly vote. I have decided,” said 27-year-old Ghazi Aslam Ahmed, a civil engineer, while his friend, 26-year-old Adnan Ahmed, a software engineer with a multinational company, was still undecided on his choice. But both asserted they planned to vote against the ruling party. “My vote is not just against the Q league, it is against Musharraf (President Pervez Musharraf),” said Adnan.

The strong-arming of the judiciary and a weak foreign policy were his reasons for anger against the Pakistan president. “I was in LUMS (Lahore University Management School), where students from the best families in Pakistan are generally not interested in politics. But, I saw how angry they became after the Chief Justice was removed. They were outraged and came out on the streets,” he said.

A few shop shutters away, 23-year-old Ahistan Mahboob was selling soft, furry toys to well-dressed small children, clinging to the fingers of their upper middle class parents. “If Bibi (Benazir Bhutto) was still alive, my vote would have gone to her. She was the only person who was prime minister material in the way she talked,” said Mahboob, adding, “Bilawal (her son) is too young and Asif Zardari (husband) is too tainted.”

Looking for the right shoe for her son, 35-year-old Azra Rahen has given up - on her country. “I pray that we go in the right direction, but I can only see darkness,” said Rahen, an interior designer. “I will not go to the polling booth. If I go, I am likely to tear up the ballot papers,” she said, half joking.

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