By Rt Hon Sadiq Khan, MP
As my flight circled above Islamabad on the eve of last month’s historic elections, and I watched the city come to life in the early morning light, I reflected on the opportunity the general election presented to reframe the skewed prism through which Pakistan’s political system is currently viewed; a system all too often associated with corruption, elitism and cronyism.
As an international election observer, I had the privilege to be in Pakistan to observe a crucial milestone in its democratic history – the first time that a democratic government has served a full term, with a democratic transfer of power from one civilian administration to another.
I was the sole politician amongst the group of UK international election observers in place across the country, which visited over 40 polling stations in Islamabad, Lahore, Karachi, Multan, Murree, Hyderabad and Faisalabad. The sheer numbers of those waiting to vote, including a huge turnout by women voters, was inspiring. Of the 86 million voters registered to cast their vote, 36 million were voting for the first time. Turnout has been judged to be around 60%, and the majority of the local observers I spoke with reported significantly less fraud than in previous elections.
Nawaz Sharif’s landslide victory means he will now form the next government, with Imran Khan’s PTI Party, whose election campaign electrified many Pakistanis, advancing from a marginal party to Pakistan’s third largest, just behind the Pakistan People’s Party.
The arrival of Imran Khan’s party has had a massive impact on the political scene in Pakistan. In Karachi, his surge has been disconcerting for exiled leader Altaf Hussain’s MQM Party, who since the 1980’s has won every election that it has contested in the city. The PTI’s rapidly growing popularity is rooted in young voters, women and the educated middle class – the very same parts of the electorate the MQM claims to represent.
The path to election day in Karachi has been fraught, with over one hundred people killed or injured as a result of election-related violence, and election day voting was disrupted by a bomb attack that saw 11 people killed and more than 40 injured. Only a week later, the night before several polling stations in Karachi were due to vote again following claims of vote-rigging, Vice-President of the PTI, Zahra Shahid Hussain, was shot dead outside her home in the city. Let us hope that this violence does not escalate further, and what we instead see from all sides in Karachi and elsewhere in Pakistan is a clear, visible determination that these lives should not have been lost in vain. For democracy in Pakistan to succeed, there now needs to be a vigilant and effective opposition.
Together, Imran Khan and his party, alongside the PPP and MQM, must now concentrate their efforts on the crucial role they hold in ensuring that the country does not drift towards the grasp of one-party rule. I know what it’s like not being in Government. Being part of the Opposition involves determination, perseverance and hard work rarely rewarded in public. But it is a necessary and fundamental part of the evolution of democracy.
We must all hope these elections have shown to the world what sort of country Pakistan really is: a country with an increasingly bright and democratic future. Added to this, the increasing independence of the media and judiciary, and the emergence of a vibrant civil society, should be a source of optimism for all.
Let’s hope that in the coming days, weeks and months, Nawaz Sharif has really learnt from his period in exile and his Government brings about the changes that the country so desperately needs. This is the opportunity for Pakistan to be known around the world for more positive reasons than of late – and that through politics, and politicians, people can really make a positive difference.
The Rt Hon Sadiq Khan MP is MP for Tooting, Shadow Justice Secretary and Shadow Minister for London.