Monday, November 7, was my first day at work at The Press of Atlantic City and on the following day I came to know that today is an election day - elections to the New Jersey state senate, assembly and Atlantic City council. What! Election; for a moment I was surprised as there was no election-related hustle and bustle, no campaign banners and party flags on the streets and no loudspeaker announcements - like in Pakistan - which made me curious about the scene at polling stations.
So I visited one polling station at a local school at about 2 p.m. where besides the polling officials hardly any other person was present. In our routine stories it would have certainly attracted a comment like ‘giving a deserted look'. There were no party supporters, line of voters and the ever-agile agents of the candidates outside the polling station trying to change the decision of voters at the eleventh hour. Yes, there was a temporary signboard guiding the people to the polling station.
In about 10 minutes that I spent at the polling station two persons turn up to vote - and one of them was told he was not registered here. I was told that as there is no holiday today people might come after the office hours.
I also had a chance to see one election-related gathering in the night, which was arranged by candidates of a party and its supporters to receive the election results. There were about 100-120 people at the function enjoying food and gossip, and I found it similar to any other gathering in the U.S. - no noise, slogans etc. In the following days there were no rallies in support of or against the winners while the losers congratulated the winners.
And my assessment is that all activities related to elections here are conducted indoors in big halls, without disturbing the public life.
Strange by any standards for me if compared with elections in Pakistan where almost a month to the elections the candidates and their supporters would set up campaign offices in every area, start wall chalking and fixing banners and posters in places like hotels, shopping centers and in streets and on public transport vehicles, turning the whole towns into a photo gallery of the contenders.
During the month preceding the elections people are heavily exposed to announcements, party songs and speeches on loudspeakers - that are really loud. One can also notice each candidate rushing from one area to other for public meetings along with his supporters in at least 15 to 20 vehicles waving the party flags and raising slogans. During these days, the candidates also start offering free food, tea and beverages at their camps in every locality to attract people and show ‘strength'.
On the polling day, the candidates also arrange for transportation of voters, mostly their supporters, to the polling stations. Those who win and their supporters freely resort to heavy aerial firing late in the night when the unofficial results come in. And with that the colorful and noisy episode of elections ends.
In this one month, people enjoy the hustle and bustle, free food and travel from one place to other with the money of the candidates, but they never think that their hard days are just beginning.
Election in Pakistan is really the game of wealthy and resourceful; those who can ‘invest' a big amount of money during campaigns mostly have greater chance of winning, especially in rural areas where illiteracy and poverty is rampant and the candidates can hoodwink the voters through mere slogans and their short-term generosity.
But spending more is not without a purpose; most of the elected people keep their eyes on the return of their ‘investment' and making more wealth, and certainly not on the welfare of their electorate or strengthening the country's institutions.
And that's why the country often finds its place in the top few when international organizations issue ranking for poverty, bad governance, corruption etc.
Generally, the people of Pakistan have little faith in democracy, which could not take roots because of long dictatorial rules. However, with the mushrooming growth of private TV channels during the past few years there is now greater awareness of using vote right and choosing candidates.
After spending about three weeks in America and seeing people of every community enjoying all their freedoms I can't remain without praising the U.S. democracy. But I think it's only for the Americans, and for the people of any other country even dictators could be acceptable for decades if they serve the U.S. interests.
When people in my country listen to the U.S. officials saying they strongly support democracy in Pakistan they hardly believe such statements because they have seen the U.S. fully supporting two dictators - General Ziaul Haq and General Pervez Musharraf - for almost two decades at the cost of democracy. Majority of them understand that the U.S. only follows its own interests.
"For a nation that honors democracy and freedom, the United States has a nasty habit of embracing foreign dictators when they seem to serve American interests. It is one of the least appealing traits of American foreign policy." And these are not my words, but the starting sentence of an Op-ed piece in The New York Times of Sept 1, 2002.
Hamid Ur Rehman is a visiting journalist from Pakistan. He will work at The Press of Atlantic City in partnership with the ICFJ till Nov 28 as part of the US-Pakistan Professional Partnership Program for Journalists. (Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)