On Saturday, May 11 Pakistanis will go to the polls
to cast their ballots in a general election that has been marred by sectarian violence and ethnic tension
. This year’s vote, however, will also mark several historic milestones for Pakistan’s tenuous democracy -- including the first ever transfer of power in Pakistan from one civilian government that completed its entire term in office to another.
Radio Mashaal Covers The Campaign
In addition to providing unbiased coverage from the start of campaigning despite the ever-present threat of violence, RFE/RL’s Pakistani Service, known locally as Radio Mashaal
, also provided the only public forum in the country for candidates running in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA)
to debate the issues and discuss the difficult problems facing the tribal regions.
This will be the first election in which candidates for national and regional office from the tribal areas can identify themselves as representing a political party. Previously, tribal politicians were required to run as independents, since, as a semi-autonomous region with a governing structure that dates back to the British colonial period, FATA residents do not have all of the rights guaranteed to other regions under the Pakistani constitution.
In order to explain the additional political rights extended to the tribal regions and draw attention to the concerns of FATA voters, Radio Mashaal hosted a series of 12 discussion forums--one for each FATA constituency in Pakistan's National Assembly--in a groundbreaking radio series dedicated exclusively to tribal issues debated by tribal area politicians.
Debates Give Candidates A Voice
Beginning on April 22 and continuing for the next 11 days, Radio Mashaal aired 45-minute debates among the candidates from Islamabad. The candidates discussed the challenges faced by residents of the tribal areas, in terms of infrastructure, education, healthcare, constitutional rights, and the security concerns that prevent many in the electorate, especially women, from exercising their right to vote.
Radio Mashaal senior editor Daud Khattak, who moderated the debates, said the freedom to campaign was also a central theme of the talks.
“I asked all of the candidates, ‘Are you free? Can you campaign freely in your area?’ The political administration of the FATA often interferes with the elections, so it is important to ask about that,” Khattak said.
In addition to debating the difficult problems facing the FATA, candidates also used the platform provided by the forums to discuss the precarious legal status of the tribal areas.
“We asked who or what is the real obstacle holding the tribal areas back since Pakistani independence in 1947,” said Khattak. “The rest of Pakistan got its constitution and its laws, but the tribal regions are still administered according to British colonial law. And why is that?”
Violence A Constant Danger
Mashaal’s discussion series was organized against a backdrop of sectarian, religious and ethnic violence that threatened the democratic process and intimidated both candidates and voters. More than 100 people have been killed in election-related violence since early April, including several dozen campaign workers and at least two confirmed candidates. Secular parties in particular have been the target of Taliban attacks
and suicide bombings, and militants have wrecked havoc in the tribal areas.
Pakistani intelligence officials told RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal that a bomb near the offices of four candidates killed at least three people on May 10
in the North Waziristan tribal region’s main town of Miran Shah.
Khattak says that as the only media initiative of its kind focusing on the tribal regions, the discussion series generated enormous audience feedback, especially from FATA residents, by phone, Facebook and Twitter.
Rahat Shinwari used Twitter to write, “Mashaal is a real voice of vulnerable and poor tribal people. Credit goes to you. Keep it up.”
Ibadullah Khan from Swat tweeted, “Good attempt of Mashaal to bring peace, development, and functional democracy.”
Continued security concerns may well keep many voters at home, in what are considered the fifth-largest elections in the world. Official results from the vote are expected to be announced sometime during the week following the vote.