Election Day
March 2008

by Derek Henry Flood

When I last left Pakistan in March of 2007, the lawyers' movement was in its infancy, Benazir Bhutto was still agitating for her return from exile in Dubai, Nawaz Sharif was barred from entering the country, and General Pervez Musharraf was comfortable as an American ally. Pakistan's political environment had been degraded greatly by the events that began during my last stay in the country, beginning with the detention of the country's Supreme Court Justice Iftikar Chaudry. In mid-December, I began making tentative plans to cover the parliamentary elections scheduled for Jan. 8. I reckoned it would be a paramount story because Pakistan had become more unstable than ever in the latter half of 2007, ending with the killing of Bhutto and subsequent postponement of the elections seen in the previous columns of Dispatches.

© Derek Flood/Polaris
Anti-government rally in Lahore, 36 hours before Pakistan's crucial elections on Feb. 18.
I arrived in Lahore five days before the rescheduled polls, hoping Musharraf wouldn't renege on his promises that the event would go ahead as planned. It seemed like one more high-profile assassination or narrowly targeted suicide attack may suspend the process indefinitely and entrench the status quo. I was incredibly relieved when election day came and went without any major violent disruption. Pessimistic analysts in the West were throwing out doomsday scenarios about the security of Pakistan's nuclear weaponry and the country being near the edge of disintegration. All of this talk added both hype and hope for what was sure to be a flawed but workable process.

© Derek Flood/Polaris
Women vote in Pakistan's Feb. 18th elections at a polling station in Lahore's Mayo Hospital.
My fixer and friend Khalid came and scooped me up on his motorbike to head off to the first of many polling stations on an all too quiet Monday. I was a little jittery leaving the guesthouse after spending a few weeks contemplating the worst. Pakistan was in an extremely delicate place that morning.

My first stop was a dim hallway of Lahore's Mayo Hospital to photograph a group of women voters casting their ballots, observing how the process was meant to work. I walked past a cluster of nearly empty electioneering tents from the three major parties in front of the parking area. To enter the gender-specific polling area, a few handshakes were exchanged with local policemen and I flashed my agency-issued press credential from New York. Almost none of the security seemed to either be aware of or to care that Pakistani credentials were issued specifically for the election (which I had not bothered to obtain). The polls opened well behind schedule and the turnout appeared quite thin. There had been a tenfold increase in the number of suicide attacks in the last year with several of the most recent targeting the election workers and the country's political and military elites. Thirty-seven had been killed at an election rally in the country's northwest two days before the vote and many were afraid to leave their homes on Monday.

© Derek Flood/Polaris
A PPP electioneering tent outside of a polling station in Lahore, Pakistan, bears an image of assassinated Benazir Bhutto.
With Khalid navigating us easily through diverse neighborhoods, I zipped around the city with relative ease throughout the tense day, using smiles to get past checkpoints, to try and document a wide cross section of what was taking place. At one very chaotic but relatively passive polling station, a woman came up to me out of the crowd and asked me what I had seen so far throughout the day. I remarked that everything appeared calm in Lahore but said I couldn't vouch for the rest of the province or the country for that matter. She became exasperated, telling me her frightened son called her after he had just been roughed up at a polling station well north of Lahore in Gujrat. He tried to vote for the opposition Pakistan People's Party but there was violent rigging taking place in the name Musharraf's ruling party.

© Derek Flood/Polaris
A toy hawker selling in central Lahore, Pakistan, after anticipated post-election violence didn't happen.
The mood of the people who did come out to vote was cautiously optimistic and most of them, even burqa-clad women, didn't seem to mind being photographed for the occasion in what many consider to have been one of the most important events in Pakistan's fitful 60 years of independence. Decades of swinging from feudal democracy to blunt dictatorship have left people here beyond cynicism. Several times when I was leaving different polling stations I would see small convoys of minibuses from the different parties that were being used to shuttle in voters who otherwise might not have participated. It was obvious the mainstream parties were spending lots of rupees to bring out the electorate, which in the case of Lahore, was former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, known in street parlance as the N-League (pronounced "Noon" in Urdu). But then I thought to myself, at least the election was taking place despite the political environment and the personal risk each person was individually taking.

At the end of this exhausting day, I jumped in a rickshaw to land in the lobby of the Pearl Continental Hotel where the concierge had given my freelance colleagues and me gratis access to the hotel's WiFi network, making it possible to file our stories without too much more stress. Upon leaving the Pearl, I witnessed men wasting no time in tearing down advertisements for Musharraf's party as the results were being read out on the local news networks.

Not a single bomb had gone off.

© Derek Henry Flood

Derek Henry Flood (b.1975, American) is an independent writer and photojournalist. His focus is primarily on Middle Eastern, Central and South Asian affairs and Islamic issues. He has appeared on BBC World Service as an international affairs contributor and has appeared in print in Time, Le Figaro, La Tribune, Les Inrockuptibles and online with IraqSlogger and The Huffington Post.

Read Derek's Dispatch from April 2007: http://www.digitaljournalist.org/issue0704/one-day-in-the-valley.html.

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