Covering the general election in Pakistan in 2013 was an often disorienting experience. I spent the day alternating between speaking to people at polling stations and doing live interviews with international television channels. There was a marked disjunction: the anchors in London or New York wanted to know about the threat of terrorism that had cast a shadow over the campaign. But on the streets of the capital, all I saw was jubilation. Entire families were out, waving Pakistan flags and taking in the atmosphere. Young men tied bandanas of their party’s colours round their heads and danced in the middle of dual carriageways, blocking traffic. Queues of women snaked out of the female sections of gender-segregated polling stations.
The reason for this carnival-like atmosphere was simple—this was a milestone. It was Pakistan’s first ever democratic transition from one elected civilian government to another. This is a country that, since it was formed in 1947, has spent almost half its years under military dictatorship. Despite the terror threat that had made it hard for parties to hold rallies, and despite widespread corruption and weak state institutions, there was a outpouring of joy at exercising the democratic right of voting out one set of leaders and voting in another.
It is hard to imagine there will be a similar celebration when, in late July, Pakistan goes to the polls for what is theoretically its second democratic transition. While on paper, this streak of elections and continuous civilian rule might appear to demonstrate a transition to democracy, in practice the military establishment is cementing its control in all areas of public life.
Over the last few months, its campaign of intimidation and crackdown on dissent has intensified to a frightening degree. In June, a newspaper columnist and prominent critic of the military, Gul Bukhari, was abducted by armed men in the city of Lahore. She was temporarily detained and her driver was beaten. Another high-profile journalist, Taha Siddiqui, has had to flee to France. They are just two of the scores of journalists and bloggers who have been forcibly detained over the last year. Many more have been censored or threatened. The popular television station Geo News was taken off air, only coming back on after its bosses agreed to toe the line. The…