Pakistan often finds itself in the world news for the wrong reasons. Attempts to promote its rich history and culture cannot seem to shake off its reputation as a hotbed for extremism, the historic tensionswith its neighbour India and a political system too often associated with corruption, elitism and cronyism.
In a significant number of terrorism-related trials in the UK, the defendants have some sort of link to Pakistan. It speaks volumes about the country’s poor standing and reputation on the world stage that some of its most misguided citizens are also regarded as its international symbols. Yet Pakistan should not be viewed solely through this prism.
The UK has long enjoyed a rich relationship with Pakistan. Until 1947 it was part of the British Raj and today the UK and Pakistan are fellow members of the Commonwealth. Thanks to post-independence migration to the UK, particularly during the 1950s and 1960s, Britain now has an estimated 1.2 million citizens of Pakistani ancestry – the second-largest overseas Pakistani population after Saudi Arabia.
As one of those 1.2 million, I was astonished to discover that the general election on Saturday 11 May was a milestone in Pakistan’s political history – it marked the first time that a democratic government had served a full term, with a democratic transfer of power from one civilian administration to another. As an international election observer, I had the privilege to observe Pakistan finally abandoning the cycle of military rule and failed alternatives.
I was the sole politician among the UK group of observers in place across the country, which visited over 40 polling stations in Islamabad, Lahore, Karachi, Multan, Murree, Hyderabad and Faisalabad. The day began with busy, often chaotic scenes and several polling stations opening late. However, things gradually became more organised. The crowds were calm but excited and determined to exercise their right to vote.
The sheer numbers of those waiting to do so, including a huge turnout by female voters (which overwhelmed many polling stations), was inspiring. Of the 86 million registered voters, 36 million were voting for the first time. Imran Khan has rightly been credited with encouraging a significant proportion of the country’s vast youth population to take part.
Yet a sizeable number of first-time voters I spoke to were middle-aged or older; many had brought their children along with them to witness this moment. Turnout has been estimated at around 60 per cent and the majority of the local observers I spoke to reported significantly less fraud than in previous elections.
The polls were due to close at 5pm local time. I was in a part of Rawalpindi where the perimeter gates to the school that temporarily doubled as a polling station closed shortly afterwards. All who had joined the queue before this time were allowed to vote. A text message then came through from the election commission authorising voting to continue until 6pm. In one polling booth, ballot boxes had already been sealed. With the agreement of the party agents and the returning officer, the seals on two boxes were broken to let voting continue – an inspiring display of democracy in action.
At the time of writing, the full results have yet to be announced officially, although reports strongly suggest that Nawaz Sharif will be forming the next government, with Khan’s Movement for Justice jostling with the Pakistan People’s Party for second place. For democracy in this country to succeed, there needs to be a vigilant and effective opposition and so Khan and his party have a crucial role in ensuring that the country does not drift towards one-party rule.
As a Labour MP, I know that being in opposition involves determination, perseverance and hard work that is rarely rewarded in public. However, it is a necessary and fundamental part of the evolution of democracy.
Credible elections will help to increase the legitimacy of the civilian government, strengthening its mandate at the national and provincial levels and endowing it with the authority that only democracy can provide. More than that, they have shown to the world what sort of country Pakistan really is: one with a bright and democratic future. Furthermore, 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, Pakistan’s new government brings about the changes that the country so desperately needs.
Sadiq Khan is the MP for Tooting, shadow justice secretary and shadow minister for London