The following piece appears on the London Review of Books Blog.
For most of the world’s media, Pakistan’s general election was about terrorism. Candidates were identified according to their attitude towards the Taliban, and labelled as ‘secular’ or ‘conservative’. Little was said about party platforms. Circumstances appeared to justify the focus. There was a savage campaign of intimidation by domestic extremists in the run-up to the vote. More than a hundred people died, most of them members of the outgoing ruling coalition parties. The Awami National Party (ANP) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) said they were targeted because of their uncompromising attitude towards the Taliban and avowedly secular views. There is some truth to this; but their enthusiastic embrace of the ‘global war on terror’ was a more immediate cause.
Despite the violence, turnout was nearly 60 per cent, the highest in Pakistan’s history. Youth participation was unprecedented. Critics of the ‘war on terror’ roundly defeated its supporters. Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), which has taken a consistent antiwar position, crushed the ANP in the north-west. The PTI did particularly well in Swat, Dir and the Federally Adminstered Tribal Areas, where most of Pakistan’s counterinsurgency operations and US drone attacks are carried out. Also leery of the war, Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) evicted the PPP from Punjab, Pakistan’s richest, most populous and developed province.
Terrorism may be foremost in the minds of Western observers; Pakistanis are more worried about the economy, education and corruption. Opinion polls showed that people’s biggest concerns are inflation and unemployment, as well as power outages and high energy costs, which have stunted economic growth and caused much misery: 20-hour blackouts are not unknown. Not all Pakistanis are exposed to terrorist violence; everyone has to buy bread.
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