Party chiefs launched their manifestos at Imperial College in London this week. No slick Anglo-American electioneering with carefully choreographed speeches and prepared questions here, this was raw Pakistani politics where missiles fire unguided.
The chiefs each had 15 minutes to speak and had been given specific questions to address, which they mostly ignored. They ran over time and had to be restrained. The evening quickly degenerated into a slanging match with personal attacks.
A panellist mocked Imran Kahn’s political ambition, calling him a “Playboy.”
His representative, Shahid Dastgir Khan, stood up and raised his hand. “I object to my leader being called a playboy!” he complained.
The PML (N) representative, Former Defence Minister Syed Ghaus Ali Shah, proclaimed rather confusingly “Contesting this election is a mistake, not contesting is a blunder, so we chose to make a mistake rather than a blunder.”
One student commented that all the party leaders represented had corruption charges filed against them. The speakers started shaking their arms and waggling their heads like clockwork toys coming alive in some lunatic children’s movie. They exploded in a frenzy of denial while the student came back at them, naming the different countries in which charges had been made: Pakistan, Switzerland, Spain … shouting followed.
“You don’t spend any time on the ground…what do you know about our country!” complained another undergraduate, referring to the exiles of the Bhutto family and Nawaz Sharif, leader of the PML(N). He pointed to Mohammad Anwar, representing Altaf Hussein for the MQM.“Your leader is chilling in Edgware!”to which Anwar retorted, smooth as ice, “He’d rather not be."
The cult of personality and the lack of democracy within the parties is keenly felt.“Just having a magical surname seems to guarantee leadership!” a young man posited. No-one argued.
Manzoor ul Haq, a Government political officer, coolly talked through the election process and monitoring by international observers (300 of them, covering 64,000 polling stations across four provinces, with a combined population of 160 million).
When asked if the elections were going to be free and fair, PPP chief Wajid Shamsul Hasan answered an emphatic “no!” saying that various intelligence personnel were already “appointed” to the four provinces. He spoke of “convenient” transfers of officers out of the regions, and qualified his words by telling me on Saturday evening from a memorial for Benazir Bhutto how thousands of extra postal ballot papers have been printed “which will be fraudulently filled in.”
Muhammad Ziauddin, a special correspondent with the Dawn group, said that London, with the help of Washington and Brussels, was sustaining President Musharraf for its own “global interests,” preferring to deal with just one man in a region of turmoil. He drew an analogy with Hosni Mubarak. “I wish people wouldn’t mess with Pakistan!” he cried emotionally.
The students seemed to be in despair … they had been desperately hoping that there was a wind of change in the air. Some had their heads in their hands.
“Please, can someone on the panel give us some hope, tell us what we have to look forward to when go back to Pakistan?” one of them pleaded.
“You can join the army,” replied Wajid Shamsul Hasan, darkly.