By Sonya Rehman
This year, on the 11th of May, I voted. As a Pakistani citizen, I voted for the first time in my life.
My polling station was a quick five minute drive from my house in the Cantonment area in Lahore. It was a hot, mildly breezy morning, but I was jumpy. The weeks leading up to voting day were super-charged, electric, and yet almost fragile, almost as if anything could happen at any given time. Political parties had been campaigning in full swing and the local television channels, local newspapers, local radio stations and even social media sites were fired up: ‘change,’ ‘democracy,’ ‘revolution,’ etc, were words one was frequently hearing and reading in the days leading up to the 11th.
It was a historical time for the young country after all – the elections this year would mark the first time in Pakistan’s history that a civilian government would complete its full term, handing power to another in democratic elections.
The polling station was a large public school. Families – primarily women, stood lined up outside airy classrooms, as old ceiling fans whizzed and wheezed in the excited heat of the morning. Sons and husbands stood in small clusters, waiting for their mothers and wives to stamp their ballot papers, while little children ran about the schoolyard like a haze of animated dots.
“I don’t even have to ask you who you’re voting for,” an elderly woman, standing in line with me, had said slyly. She was implying Imran Khan, the Chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf – the handsome, former cricketer, now politician who had immense youth support, as depicted by the mass youth turnout at his recent rallies. “I’m voting for him too you know,” she said, smiling. She was a slim, hard-faced woman, who took it upon herself to direct confused first-time voters to the right line. She was particularly worried about the senior citizens; plenty had shown up at our polling station – they had walked slowly, holding onto family members for support as they made it across the expanse of the parking lot to the classrooms.
“I’m 62-years-old,” the woman had said, “I’m voting for the first time in my life. I couldn’t not come out and vote today, how could I? Things have to change here.”
I’d felt the same way. After an hour long wait in line, I finally made it to the bespectacled, middle-aged polling agent. She was hunched over her desk, stamping ballot papers, barely slowing her pace, even to catch her breath. For a first-time voter, the voting process can be an exceedingly unnerving, yet exciting time. There are questions and concerns, and yet, there’s this unmistakable feeling of hope: as if the country’s destiny truly lies in your hands. Just yours. And suddenly, in the midst of it all, you realize how significant your role in society is, that you count, that your participation in the future of your nation really and truly does count.
Almost ready to receive my green ballot paper, I was informed that I had to go back to another polling agent for verifications – they had to check my name on the list since I was thoroughly confused about a code (imperative for clearance). Even though the code was right under my nose, listed on my notepad, nerves had gotten the better of silly me. I left my spot in the line dismally and made my way to a young polling agent outside the classroom. It took a good 15-20 minutes for the issue to get sorted out. Luckily, a young woman who had stood in line with me at the time (now at the front, collecting her ballot papers), looked at me in concern and ushered me across to her. “Don’t worry, I kept your spot,” she’d said cheerfully. I had tears of relief and gratitude in my eyes, partly because during the verification process I was nursing a sinking feeling of doom, indulging in pessimism and paranoia – thinking I wouldn’t be able to vote.
The young woman was a bubbly, chirpy little thing. She realized I was utterly frazzled and as we received our ballot papers simultaneously, she made some light-hearted jokes to take the edge off my anxious disposition. “Do you know, my Aunt and Uncle flew in from the US especially to vote? They’re here for barely two days. Imagine that,” she’d said.
After slipping my ballot papers in their respective boxes, I was elated. I’d done it. I’d voted. As I left the classroom I went up to the young woman and touched her shoulder. Thank you, I said.
The campus was almost empty as a handful of women waited their turn in line. The guards at the gate were less jittery as I stepped out. It had been smooth-sailing at this polling station; no mishaps, no thugs, no blatant rigging, and no disorderly conduct. Later I would find out about disturbing occurrences of rigging and unashamed corruption at other polling stations around the country. I would learn of the sit-ins across Pakistan, in retaliation, in the demand for re-polls, for justice, I would hear snippets of conversation wherever I went; from department/grocery stores, to the bank; everyone would be talking about the results, the “state of affairs” in the country and the countless questions, the scrutiny, the analysis, the fear and the hope, the where-do-we-go-from-here?, the innocence and the ignorance in a country whose people have been waiting for ‘change’ for so long that they expect, feel and wish it to manifest instantaneously – in a packet, snip off the top and add one teaspoon to the soupy mix, buy one! get one free!
But I couldn’t and can’t be a skeptic just yet. The day of the elections proved that things were already changing in the country. The wheels had been set in motion. It was a long time coming. I’d never known the Pakistani youth to be so proactive, so politically aware and perceptive, so conscious of their role in their country, so buoyant and so promising. The patriotism and optimism that cynics would shrug off as foolhardy and impulsive – was real. One could feel it. I still do. And that in itself is change for Pakistan. Tangible, ocular change will come to Pakistan one day, but for now? 2013 marks a year when Pakistanis set out to re-claim their beloved country. Standing in solidarity for a united, collective vision and dream for Pakistan. And that at the end of the day is half the battle won.
The Diplomat Magazine