In praise of Basharat Peer’s sense of context

The New Yorker published what seems like a very solid piece on Pakistan’s election yesterday. I choose my words carefully here, because I am no Pakistan expert. But journalist Basharat Peer imparts upon the reader the significance of the vote and how it represents real progress in an often chaotic nation, while choosing not to downplay that which mars life in Pakistan.

By the evening, twenty-two people were killed in attacks on voters across the country. In the frontline city of Peshawar, a motorcycle bomb, planted near a polling booth set aside for women, injured eight. In the final two weeks of campaigning, around a hundred and thirty people were killed in terror attacks. Six hundred thousand security and police personnel were deployed to safeguard the voters and the polling booths.

Yet on Saturday, Pakistan was overwhelmed by an enthusiastic outpouring of voters across classes and ethnicities. Some waited for hours to get into the polling booths. Some walked miles, in temperatures ranging from a hundred to a hundred and ten degrees Farenheit. Some had flown from U.A.E., Saudi Arabia, United Kingdom, and the United States, taking time off from their jobs, to be able to cast their votes and make a statement in favour of sustained civilian rule, in hope of a better Pakistan.

One of the Pakistanis who partly lives abroad is the London-based novelist, Kamila Shamsie, the author, most recently, of “Burnt Shadows.” Shamsie had returned to her city, Karachi, before the elections. As she left home to vote, she began to tweet #pollingboothtales describing the atmosphere. Shamsie was moved by a mass turnout of women voters: “They came in niqab, they came in hijab, they came in combat trousers and even a kaftan,” she tweeted.

It’s not surprising, from my layman’s perspective, to read about such enthusiasm, despite the violence. The vote was the first in Pakistan’s history to be held after a civilian government completed a five year term.

It appears to have been won by Nawaz Sharif, the leader of a party that “mixes Islam with big business, with supporters among the religious and trading classes and a fondness for infrastructure projects.”

For me, personally, Peer’s piece also triggers memories about a pet peeve of mine — one I have to deal with every two to four years or so. If all goes well, this developing transition will be a big achievement for Pakistan, a country with a recent history of extraordinary social problems. But why do our politicians and commentators insist on praising peaceful transitions after elections here? Americans haven’t had to worry about being assassinated while waiting to vote or while celebrating election results, for the most part (despite the South’s checkered past). Perhaps we should set slightly higher standards for ourselves?

Samuel Knight

Samuel Knight is a freelance journalist living in DC and a former intern at the Washington Monthly.