In some ways, it was like any other election in Pakistan--violence, corruption, and allegations of rigging. In other ways, it was like nothing this 66-year-old nation had ever seen.
May 11, 2013 marked the first constitutional transfer of power from one civilian government to another in Pakistani history. Fittingly, this big first was captured with another big first--a globally trending hashtag. As the Saturday morning sun rose over sleepy Islamabad, #PakVotes was already surging to the top of Twitter's trending list all over the world.
Championed by the Pakistani human rights organization "Bytes for All," Pak Votes was a digital campaign seeking to bring "openness" and "inclusion" into the Pakistani political process. On Election Day, Pak Votes replaced pundits and predictions with faces--showcasing everyone from rural women voting for the first time in villages to grizzled elders rolling to their local polling stations in wheelchairs. They showed people of various parties, ethnicities, and locales coming together to engage in the formative basis of any democracy--to vote. At its most intrinsic level, Pak Votes showed the bravery and optimism that represents the best of Pakistan.
But at the same time, Pak Votes also showed the dark, gruesome realities these men and women faced as they provided a running stream of first-person reports coming from the 177 million men, women, and children of Pakistan, posting pictures and videos tweeted from the phones of everyday citizens. In addition to sharing and retweeting these first-person accounts, Pak Votes developed an interactive map to showcase election-related happenings all over the country, documenting everything from intimidation attempts and voter fraud to assassination attempts and kidnappings.
Figure 1. Pak Votes Map (Source: http://pakvotesmap.pk/)
For the first time, these stories became not word-of-mouth tales exchanged over chai and samosas but irrefutable realities documented and reported in real time. For the first time, stories that would be routinely pushed aside and chalked up to conjecture were captured and presented for all to see. For the first time, these issues could not be ignored.
As the aftermath of Election Day settles, one thing has become clear: The Pakistani public recognizes the challenges it faces. As corruption and violence marred an otherwise historic day, the public responded with protests across the country calling for integrity and accountability from its leaders. Indeed, this election marked a stark difference from those of the past in that Pakistan displayed a certain optimism that it had lost over the last decade. As former cricket star Imran Khan (PTI) disrupted Pakistan's traditional two-party with a "tsunami" of support gathering behind his calls for a Naya Pakistan--that is, a new Pakistan--he did so, partly, on the shoulders of his nearly half millions Twitter followers, tweeting daily as he rallied ferociously across the country. On the other hand, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and current President Asif Zardari relied on the online acumen of their daughter and son, respectively, to lead their Facebook campaigns.
Throughout their campaigns, these Pakistani leaders struggled to deal with a challenge they had never faced before. For the first time, YouTube videos, popular Twitter feeds, and countless blogs became the voice of the people. Expatriates from all over the globe turned to the Internet to document their political support both with their words and their wallets as they stayed on top of daily happenings with real-time updates. From Imran Khan's struggles with his comments regarding Ahmadis to Nawaz Sharif's struggles with his comments regarding Imran Khan, the Internet played a huge role in this election.
At the end of the day, however, Pakistan is still a country where nearly 90% reportedly live without Internet, where 1 in 3 citizens live in poverty, where scarcities of clean water and shelter are a daily reality for scores of millions. But these areas for growth only highlight how much potential this young nation still has. And throughout this election cycle, one thing has become quote clear--Pakistan still believes in itself. It may be softer, it may be weaker, but Pakistan still holds onto the intrinsic sense of optimism that it was founded upon over half a century ago.
Through out it all, this nation still has hope for a naya Pakistan--and it'll be tweeting about it.