Oregon law student witnesses historic elections in Pakistan

Observing Pakistani elections was "transformational" for Johnson
Observing Pakistani elections was "transformational" for Johnson

Will Johnson is pursuing a concurrent J.D./MA in International Studies, and is scheduled to complete his degree requirements in May 2014. He recently returned to the UO School of Law from Pakistan, where he was a lecture and research fellow with the American Institute of Pakistan Studies. Below is a first-person account from Johnson about his time in Pakistan, where he had the opportunity to witness the country's national elections.

I arrived in Islamabad on April 17, 2013, just weeks before one of the most important elections in Pakistan's history. Although as I write this I am still trying to fully digest certain aspects of both the personal and professional experiences of this trip, I can confidently say that my six weeks in Pakistan represent one of the most amazing periods and transformational moments of my life. 

I felt remarkably safe throughout the trip, and even the few times where a safety concern arose, nothing materialized. In fact, in many ways I felt safer traveling around Islamabad and the surrounding region than I do when traveling around Guatemala City or parts of LA and Chicago. This is not meant to diminish the actual violence occurring in certain parts of the country, and it is important to note that the restrictions on my visa kept me from visiting those places. Instead, I mean to say that many of the areas in which foreigners are allowed to venture are far safer and more comfortable than even I expected. If anyone reading this has an opportunity to visit Pakistan, I strongly encourage you to not let the security concerns keep you from getting on the plane.

Research and Lectures:
I am currently entering the final year of my 4-year concurrent degree program, where I am pursuing a JD in Law and a MA in International Studies. My thesis research is an attempt to understand how lawyers and non-lawyers alike work with (and within) judicial systems that the international community considers extremely corrupt. My hope for this project is that it will help reframe the corruption debate so that lawyers, scholars, and policymakers see corruption as a rule of law issue, and not simply an impediment to economic growth. The trip to Pakistan is the second half of a comparative project that I began in El Salvador in 2011.

My fieldwork consisted mostly of formal and informal interviews, supplemented with analysis of media and some government documents. In Islamabad and Lahore I conducted formal interviews with private lawyers, government officials, and academics. I also held informal interviews with roughly two-dozen individuals who had interacted with the Pakistani judicial system at various levels.

Observing the Pakistani Elections:
The 2013 elections represented a milestone for the historically problematic system of democracy in Pakistan. While multiple elections have been held in Pakistan, all with varying yet limited degrees of fairness and transparency, many elected officials have been ousted through military coups or other means. Yet when I arrived in April of 2013 the country was on the cusp of a major event: the first peaceful, democratic transition of power ever. What I mean by this is that the current elected government had completed its full term – something that is in itself an accomplishment — and was poised to hand power over to a newly elected government. This had never before happened in Pakistan, and thus there was much concern about whether it would be successful, whether the military or intelligence agencies would force an outcome (as they have done in the past), and to what extent the Pakistani Taliban could fulfill its promise to hijack the electoral process.

Alongside these concerns was an almost unprecedented wave of public support for the democratic process in Pakistan. Former cricket-star turned politician Imran Khan helped motivated the young and old alike to vote for a change to the status quo. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of first-time voters filled the streets and social media airwaves to promote Khan’s political party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). Putting policy platforms aside, this movement felt eerily similar to President Obama’s first election: both men were good-looking, charismatic leaders who promised major changes to the system and offered hope for the disenfranchised masses, and both were successful using new techniques to create excitement in a time when a large majority of their respective populations were fed up with politics.

During the week before elections, my thesis adviser, Dr. Anita Weiss, arrived in Pakistan to promote the publication of her new co-edited book: Development Challenges Confronting Pakistan (Kumarian Press, 2013). She previously had been invited to join an international election observer team, and shortly after arrival I was also asked to join. Although we were first scheduled to observe polling sites in Abbotabad, various factors forced us to return to Islamabad late the night before elections and join a team in the capital city.

On election day I rode with a media team from the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) to monitor polling stations throughout the city. I was allowed access to all but one of the polling sites that we visited, and together with the media team was able to speak with election workers, security and police staff, and voters themselves. It was an incredibly fascinating experience, and despite the heightened security concern, everything I experienced was orderly and safe. Minor violations of the election laws were evident almost everywhere, but in many ways the actual voting processes functioned better than I had expected.

One of the most important things I learned in Pakistan is a truth that I have confronted many times before: people are the same everywhere. While this sounds like a cliché, it is something that is easy to forget in the world of sound bites and mass media in which we all live. What I mean by this is that no matter where I have been in the world, from small towns in Nebraska or Oregon, to New York City, San Salvador, or Islamabad, the vast majority of people I interact with are kind and accommodating. This was even more evident in Pakistan, most likely because so many Pakistanis simply wanted to show me that their country was not a warzone, and that they were not terrorists. I do not mean to downplay the serious security concerns in and around Pakistan, but I feel that it is my responsibility to explain that the Pakistan you see on TV is not real. Many Pakistanis with whom I interacted were honest about their anger and frustration with specific US government policies, most notably the ongoing drone strikes, and at times this created awkward, nearly confrontational exchanges. Yet they also by and large understood that there is a large distinction between what a government does and what the citizens of that government want, something I think everyone, regardless of ideology, can understand.

One of the first questions I was asked by many people was (in some form or another) “were you scared to come to Pakistan?” Despite my answer, which changed somewhat throughout the trip, more often than not this question was simply a way to broach the subject so that one of them could tell me a story about being scared to come to the U.S. For just as we are filled with misperceptions about what Pakistan is, these Pakistanis were assuming that immediately upon entering our country – after being strip searched and interrogated by the FBI at the airport, of course – they would be confronted with crowds of gun-toting, epithet hurling Americans who hated them because they were Muslim. Yet just like my experience in Pakistan, they went on to tell me how nearly everyone they met in the U.S. was kind, curious, and welcoming.

I hesitate to think I am an idealist, but these moments reminded me that if we want the next 50 years to be any less violent, bloody, and painful than the past, one thing we must do is increase access to cross-cultural exchanges like the trip I just completed. Especially between countries with contentious pasts, like the U.S. and Pakistan, it is imperative that the future leaders of each country get the opportunity to interact and exchange ideas while they are still hopeful and open-minded. I feel incredibly grateful that I had the opportunity to do that in an incredibly interesting yet complex region of the world.

- from the UO School of Law