The value of voting lies not just in a stamp on a piece of paper but in the compassion, humanity and sheer spirit that comes across whenever many people gather in one space, in the face of mismanagement and mutual suffering.
The camaraderie forged by the united threat of heatstroke led to some interesting sights as we stood to cast our votes on May 11. As people waited for hours in lines, new friendships were formed among members of the same community, who found out that they lived only two houses down or five minutes away. Phone numbers were exchanged by new friends, yoga classes planned and heated discussions of which candidate was the best for which reason gave the entire atmosphere a charged feeling. Some women began to hum national songs to distract themselves from the long wait, while others played cham-cham to recreate the hot recesses that they were reminded of while standing at a school, their polling station.
Humour manifests itself in situations of desperation — at 3pm, we stood in the scorching sun, no nearer to casting our vote. People over 65 were allowed to go ahead and a man went by saying, “Good. Now let’s see which woman tells the truth about her age!” (And many did, gladly!). Another man waiting in line in another polling station joked, “larkiyan kali ho rahi hain, they won’t get proposals — hamein ander jaanay do!”
When we finally entered the room where the election officers sat, we saw a sign flickering the “wel” in a neon welcome sign. The ‘come’ made a valiant effort to shine and succeeded feebly and sporadically. One of the voters, sweaty and dizzy quipped, “Our hosts say, well … come already! But don’t have the means to entertain us.” And every time someone cast a vote, the entire crowd in the room cheered and clapped in celebration of a civil duty exercised.
The youngsters, especially, seemed politically motivated. They stood for hours, despite the fact that many had exams on Monday, May 13 — one girl was visibly stressed and when her mother offered that she go home, she said, “But what about Pakistan?” Idealism, pragmatism and a little bit of rebellion also manifested themselves in a special girl, who complained bitterly about the long wait. When asked to sit down and take a rest, she insisted, “No! I want to give my vote to Imran Khan so that he can get better.” Another 20-something actually called her father and asked him to send a pedestal fan for the people waiting to get to their polling station and again, received applause, as well as gratitude. Many young people distributed water, cold drinks, chips and cookies at their own expense.
Moreover, the number of senior citizens being wheeled in to vote for the first time was impressive. Many hobbled in, assisted by strangers, embarrassed by the inconvenience they caused, leaving with smiles because the people around them told them how proud they were that they had made this Herculean effort for their country. One lady in front of me was visibly shaken after putting her thumbprint on the wrong paper twice. The irate election officers maintained a purse-lipped silence rather than snapping at her, even though he had not rested or eaten since morning. And then, we all have seen that one amazing man carried in on a stretcher to vote and the victorious raise of his hand when people applauded him after he was done.
There were many negative moments, of course — the littering (although I’m told the patient people who waited all day in DHA, phase four, Karachi, and returned without voting cleaned up after themselves) the heckling and bullying and foul play; all that, I’m sure we will hear about at length in the news and on social media. But on May 11, I saw patriotism, spirit and heart among the citizens of Pakistan. It makes me realise that ours is a country of people who are chaotic, well-meaning, helpless, snarky, helpful, hopeful. But the ordinary voter exhibited a tremendous amount of compassion, strength and determination in the face of difficult odds. This, above all else, must be celebrated.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 15th, 2013.