(NOPE, I am not talking about the Philippine elections but the long-awaited Pakistani national elections).


ISLAMABAD -- The first time I visited Pakistan was in 2008, when the Stimson Center organized a two-day discussion on Islam and politics in Asia. Experts and scholars representing academia, nongovernmental organizations and think tanks came from Bangladesh, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sudan and Sri Lanka to discuss the misunderstanding between East and West on the role of Islam in the political life of the Islamic World.


The conference, organized by Stimson Center’s Dr. Amit Pandya, sought to address the failure by the West to understand the intellectual currents in the Muslim world and in Islamic thought, particularly as these were influenced by the tensions of 9/11. (Dr. Pandya is now a senior official with the US Department of Labor, the chief of staff of the Bureau of International Labor Affairs.) The discussions brought out the resentment of the Muslim World at the attempts of the West to generalize Islamic thought (often seen as monolithic), a simplification which denied the variety and richness of legitimate Islamic discourse and detracted from the attempts of Muslim leaders to reform their societies even within the context of faith.

Sadly, the bombing of the Lal Masjid, also known as the Red Mosque, which happened two days before we arrived, overshadowed our conference. A 30-year-old suicide bomber blew himself up near the mosque on the first anniversary of the attack on the Lal Masjid by government, which had resulted to the death of 154 worshippers. The Red Mosque, managed by militant ulama, had reportedly engaged in violent demonstrations against government.

Here I am, back in Islamabad after five years, and the atmosphere has changed. The whole country is preparing for its national elections on May 11, the first time in 40 years that a democratic transition will be made by an elected government, which will have completed a full term of office.

I am in Pakistan, invited by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) to join the leadership delegation of their team of international observers to witness the conduct of Pakistan’s May 11 elections. The leadership delegation, led by former Prime Minister of Norway Kjell Magne Bondevik, includes former Minister of Justice of Ireland Nora Owen, former US congressman for Missouri Russ Carnahan, NDI’s Vice-President Shari Bryan and NDI Director for Asia Programs Peter Manikas. I represent Namfrel and Anfrel (Asian Network for Free Elections).

As a member of the delegation, I cannot comment on the electoral process until after we have processed our findings as a group so let me share with you my observations on the changes I have witnessed in Islamabad after five years.

First, let me say that the media has changed a lot in five years. The newspapers and TV talk shows freely discuss the issues, the comings and goings of government and political parties as well as the powerful military and religious sectors. There is even a popular talk show that has comedians spoofing political leaders and candidates. Wish I could understand Urdu. The spoofs seemed truly engaging -- if painful to those critiqued. The free press, alone, has made a huge difference in the atmosphere. Five years ago, I felt that I was cocooned by government-sanctioned reports. Today, it’s no-holds barred -- much like Manila.

Second, visibility of women. Five years ago, I found it so strange that there were few women on the streets -- even in the markets. Further, all the shopkeepers were male (even shops that sold women’s personal items). Today, I have seen more women on the street. Perhaps it’s because of the elections, there are many women running for office and even more are campaigning openly for their political parties. The major political parties have women wings, in recognition of the valuable contribution women make to bringing in the votes.

Third, more Western tourists seem to have discovered Pakistan. Or perhaps the Caucasians I have seen around are part of aid and development agencies. At any rate, I have been seeing more non-Asians (who are not sporting crew-cuts) as compared to five years ago.

Fourth, fashion! Last night, I discovered the Pakistani TV channel dedicated to fashion. Fantastic! The traditional Pakistani attires -- like the shalwar kameez -- have been modernized to attract the younger, urban, jean-wearing, high-heeled Pakistani women. I have spent an hour marveling at the truly gorgeous Pakistani textiles used by young designers. Their couture can be comfortably worn for parties in Manila or elegant dinners in Washington D. C.

Fifth, unfortunately blackouts have been frequent. Luckily, we are billeted at the luxurious Serena Hotel and have not suffered from the power interruptions. However, the rest of the city has not been as lucky. No wonder the political parties have prioritized energy sufficiency as one of the main issues for their campaigns -- together with security, the economy, and good governance.

Sixth, security. Alas, I can’t really say that there has been much progress on security since there were bombings a couple of days ago, which targeted candidates. Three days ago, 14 died when a bomb exploded during a rally. I have been surfing the net for news on campaigning in Pakistan and it appears that the Taliban is out to sabotage the elections, proclaiming that Islam and democracy are incompatible. According to Pakistani media: "The Pakistani Taliban have claimed responsibility for many of the attacks in the run-up to the May 11 election and specifically threatened several secular parties back in March. But the Taliban have also condemned democracy as a whole, meaning any political party taking part in the election could be considered fair game by the militant group."

Fortunately for me, these violent incidents have been outside Islamabad. The city itself is quiet, seemingly awaiting the hoopla to come on May 11, a most awaited election day that will ensure a peaceful transition. I, for one, am extremely excited to move around and witness the conduct of the elections.

More observations next week, after the elections, when I will be free to share the findings of our delegation. 


Amina Rasul is the president of Philippine Council for Islam and Democracy. Surveil is her column in BusinessWorld. Follow her on Twitter @aminarasul.