Pakistanis are worried about the future of the state, energy crisis, terrorism and lawlessness. They don't seem very interested in upcoming parliamentary elections. They fear the state is breaking down quickly.
Pakistanis will elect members of the lower house of parliament (National Assembly) and provincial assemblies on May 11, yet most of them are not very interested in upcoming elections. This is in contrast to what private TV channels in the country show on their programs and talk shows. Pakistanis are fed up with the political and electorate system of their country. They loathe politicians and are equally unhappy with the powerful military generals who have ruled the country for more than three decades collectively.
For many Pakistanis, the last five years of the previous Pakistan People's Party's government -led by President Asif Ali Zardari - were a nightmare. The economy crumbled during this time, prices soared like never before, unemployment increased manifold, and terrorist attacks killed thousands of people.
Now that an interim government responsible for holding "free and fair" elections has been instated in the country, Pakistanis are waiting for a miracle - for someone to change their destiny and put the country on the right track.
Who will that person be?
Urban middle-class Pakistanis, who are historically conservative, now expect Imran Khan, the cricket-star-turned-politician, to win the elections. His rhetoric resonates with those who are looking for an alternative to Zardari's PPP and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's Muslim League. Khan's anti-US statements have also made him popular among right-wing voters. A number of religious parties also support him. Khan wants a truce with Taliban militants and less US involvement in Pakistani politics. He has been campaigning against corruption in politics for many years. But some political experts consider his party's manifesto "idealistic" and "superficial." Still, many in Pakistan think Khan is a better option than Zardari and Sharif.
Former President and military chief Pervez Musharraf has also returned to Pakistan from five years of self-imposed exile with a promise to "restore" Pakistan. The general ruled Pakistan from 1999 to 2008 and supported the US "war on terror" - a move that made him quite unpopular among the country's religious groups. However, he still has many supporters in the country who want a "liberal" leader to govern the country. But Musharraf's All Pakistan Muslim League party does not have much presence in the country. He is only relying on his personal charisma and probably the support of his former institution - the Pakistani army.
Religion and politics
Pakistan has always been a religious country yet when it comes to elections, Pakistanis have never voted for Islamic parties. But the dismal performance of secular PPP and right-to-the center Muslim League has given Islamic parties an edge. Unpopular alliances with the US have also discredited secular parties.
Some Pakistanis believe that a right-wing government like the Muslim Brotherhood's in Egypt can challenge the US and bring peace to the country. They do not blame the Islamists, particularly the Taliban, for violence in the country but the United States. Conspiracy theories are rife in the Islamic Republic - as usual. Some say the US wants to create chaos in the country to denuclearize Pakistan and give India an upper hand in the region. Some say the US is unhappy with Pakistan's decision to give the strategically important Gwadar port in the western Balochistan province to China. Some say President Zardari's decision to go ahead with the controversial gas pipeline project with Iran has enraged the US, which is now out to take revenge by supporting terrorism inside their country.
But nobody in Pakistan has any idea how to restore the economy and make it functional. Pakistan relies heavily on foreign funding, with US being its biggest military and civilian aid provider. The Islamic Republic needs an annual or sometimes half-yearly bailout from the IMF and the World Bank to pay salaries to government officials and keep the state machinery running. The anti-US rhetoric of Khan and other religious groups may be popular with masses but even they know that it is impossible to work without the US' help.
Liberal Pakistanis argue that Pakistan is not like Iran nor Egypt, which both have huge oil reserves and vibrant tourism and can thus afford the wrath of the US. Pakistan, they say, can also no longer use the Taliban as a bargaining chip to counterbalance India's influence in Afghanistan. The Taliban have turned against Pakistan and it has caused serious damage to Pakistan's economy, they argue.
The rich and the elite are beginning to get very worried about Pakistan's deepening crises. Their businesses have suffered due to the protracted energy crisis and terrorism. They are not looking for the status-quo at the moment and need a change. But they need a change to an extent that does not harm their economic interests. Quite a few of these people are supporting Khan and Musharraf and are also hoping that the two will form an alliance before or after the elections.
For liberal and secular Pakistanis, the worst scenario would be to have an Islamic party come to power - whether through ballot or revolution. Many of them have left Pakistan for the United Arab Emirates, Europe, or the US. Those who have not yet left the country are contemplating doing so; many people feel insecure and fear persecution.
The Islamic Republic's artists, writers, poets and activists, however, are still hopeful that sanity will prevail in their country sooner or later. Despite terror attacks, rampant targeted killings of political workers, rights activists, and common people alike, progressive Pakistanis refuse to give up. Musical concerts, theatrical performances, literature festivals are not as frequent in Pakistan as they used to be, but they are still happening. People continue to go out and eat and watch the latest Indian movies at cinemas.
Pakistan is apparently breaking down but there is still some hope left; only time will tell whether the conservative or the liberal Pakistan will last.
Shamil Shams was in Karachi last month.