Ugly from the outside

International media outlets seem almost unanimous in taking a dim view of the election process in Pakistan, writes Syeda Mamoona Rubab

Ugly from the outside
Pakistan rarely gets positive coverage in the international press, but this year’s elections, which could have helped wipe off some of that negativity, got some very bad press in the foreign media.

It would be appropriate to say it was an opportunity lost in terms of repairing our international image by projecting Pakistan as a progressive and democratic country.

Some of the headlines from the leading publications will show how bad was the coverage in the run up to the polls: Pakistan’s Military Wields More Influence Ahead of National Election (Wall Street Journal); Arrests and intimidation fuel fears of ‘dirty’ election in Pakistan (New York Times); Military’s Influence Casts a Shadow Over Pakistan’s Election (The Guardian); Pakistan heads for dirtiest election in years, candidates allege widespread interference by army and intelligence services (Financial Times) and Pakistan’s military uses menace to ease Imran Khan’s path into power (The Times).

Meanwhile, the Washington Post, in its article noted, “Two of the three main contenders to lead Pakistan next aren’t even scheduled to appear on the ballot in the July 25 national elections”.

This is how the world viewed our elections. Invariably everyone pointed fingers at the military and intelligence services for allegedly meddling with the elections. The charge was denied by the army, but probably it was not strong enough to kill all speculation.

The explanations in political circles for such a negative coverage, almost unprecedented, were varied. Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI) saw it as the work of the ‘international establishment’, which was supportive of its opponents. Speaking in Karachi in the last round of the campaign, PTI Chief Imran Khan asked people to support him in his crusade against the international establishment. He also suggested that foreign media, and in some cases the domestic press, were in cahoots with that international establishment.

Meanwhile, Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) is worried about the implications of the bad press for the country. Former interior minister Ahsan Iqbal tweeted, “Pakistan’s image suffers badly in international arena with the most disputed election taking place. When will we realise that this is the 21st century and we can’t let Pakistan be perceived as Mugabe’s Zimbabwe or North Korea?” He further noted, “GE 2018 unfortunately losing legitimacy in the eyes of world.”

Although Ahsan Iqbal pointed to autocratic regimes ostensibly indifferent to international pressures, in today’s world even leaders like Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko care about how they are being perceived by the outside world.

A closer look at the contrasting reactions for the two bitter rivals, however, reveals the shared concern for the implications of this media coverage for the country after the elections are over. Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan had rightly said, “Legitimacy is the crucial currency of government in our democratic age. Victory without legitimacy is no victory at all.”

That legitimacy is more important in the case of our country, which perpetually lives on international handouts. Countries worried about the state of democracy here would be affected by such coverage. But, I think we can take heart from the fact that concern about democracy is globally on decline in this Trumpian era and leaders like Imran Khan think we can survive without bailouts from international lenders notwithstanding our economic predicament.

On a more serious note, however, the foreign media’s coverage is not too far from reality, although many conveniently see it as a conspiracy against Pakistan. Yes, the media is biased and it is biased in favour of bad news, but the situation worsens when one is already lacking credibility with editorial desks and experts. Therefore, what we saw in the international media was almost a reflection of the election coverage by our domestic media. The political context in which GE2018 took place was defined by alleged expedited accountability to cleanse the process of unwanted politicians, pressure on candidates and forced desertions, disturbing effort to mainstream banned organisations for denting the vote bank of some of the main actors and restrictions on media. Lest we forget, integrity of the election is not just about the voting process. All factors contributing to the environment are taken into account.

Quite a few international election observer missions were here to observe the process including ones from the European Union and Commonwealth. The EU delegation went on to record its reservations over not being given enough opportunity to observe the process as the visas of their observers were delayed.

“Due to a series of bureaucratic delays, the core team arrived on June 24, and the mission’s 60 long-term observers (LTOs) in early July. The short period of time between now and election day has implications on the EU EOM’s ability to thoroughly assess some key aspects of the process, including the campaign environment in different parts of the country, as well as the work of the election administration at local level,” the EU delegation had said in a statement.

The point over here is that such issues and complaints about refusal of visas to journalists and restrictions on local media only serve to fuel negative coverage by the foreign media that has always been known to be ‘biased.’ Reports of election observers would soon be coming and there would not be any surprises if they are critical.

Five years later, and on the eve of another general election if we are lucky to reach that point, we could be yet again pilloried by the press for the shortcomings in our election process. We can only pre-empt that by realising that no one is inherently against us and our country and that we have to correct ourselves if our country’s image abroad has to improve.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad


Twitter: @bokhari_mr