“Assalamu-alaikum! Kiya haal hay?”
This was the Urdu greeting that a customer gave a restaurant owner when he entered. The owner returned the salutation and invited him to take a seat. With nearly everyone in the venue wearing the traditional dress shalwar kameez and holding conversations in Urdu, the atmosphere of ‘Gourmet Bakery and Sweets’ on Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn, so closely resembles that of a restaurant in Pakistan that one feels momentarily transported to the country.
The sound of an Urdu news channel, ‘Geo News’ blared, giving information about the prospects of different political parties in the country’s general elections to be held on May 11. Everyone in the restaurant glanced at the television screen from time to time. The polls are historic as it is for the first time in the history of Pakistan that a democratically elected government has completed its five year term and another is to be voted into power.
“I think Imran Khan should win but I don’t believe the elections will be fair because of the corruption in the country,” said Razia Khan, a 40-year-old mother of four sons who had come to Gourmet Bakery, an outlet of a well-known retail chain in Pakistan, to purchase some food items.
She was referring to Khan- the cricketer turned politician who is the chairman of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) which is considered to be one of the two main contenders in the elections scheduled for May 11. The party is likely to face stiff competition from Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) of two-time former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Nevertheless, Imran Khan has emerged as the most popular politician of Pakistan in recent years, because his party “PTI” has never been elected to power before and analysts say the public has generally become weary of the allegedly inept policies of the two national political parties – Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) whose government just ended its tenure, and PML-N. Both of these parties have been voted to power repeatedly.
As the polls approach, the election fever is running high and the ‘Little Pakistan’ community in Flatbush, Brooklyn- home to an estimated 27 percent of the more than 41,000 Pakistani Americans living in New York City, according to the 2010 census – is also drawn to the excitement.
Sitting at a table with his two young daughters and wife, Muhammad Ali Khan said that “If Imran Khan wins, things will get better in Pakistan, other-wise the country will regress 100 years.” He also said that a lot of people were going to visit their homeland to cast their votes, but he couldn’t go because of his health problems.
Recently, the Supreme Court of Pakistan issued orders that arrangements should be made to enable overseas Pakistanis like Khan, to cast their votes in the upcoming elections. Though, the Election Commission of Pakistan initially expressed reservations citing logistical difficulties, it is now mulling options of how to provide the facility.
The right to cast a vote was the subject of repeated conversations in the local Pakistani community. “I would love to have the right to cast vote in the upcoming elections,” said Shoaib Awan, an under-graduate finance student at Brooklyn College. “I just want Pakistani leaders to be strong and not beg other countries for aid all the time.” Awan also said he believes the polls will be impartial this time, because the Pakistani courts are now keeping a check on politicians’ power and will not let them rig the elections.
Waseem Arif, 31, a business consultant, claimed that if overseas Pakistanis were given the right to vote, 80 percent would vote for PTI. He also said Imran Khan’s party was the only hope for the country.
His friend Ali Adnan Syed, an engineer, took a more pessimistic view while eating-‘failooda’- a traditional sweet dish, at a restaurant called Mithas. “The elections in Pakistan will not be fair because of the involvement of big players in the politics of the country like Afghanistan, Dubai and India,” he claimed.
Syed’s pessimism was shared by Maham Nazeer, a part-time assistant at the restaurant, who said she did not care about the upcoming elections, because she did not think that any change will take place in Pakistan.
“No politician can win the elections without corruption. What can I say about a country in which Asif Ali Zardari spend so many years in jail and then became the president?” she said. Zardari the co-chairperson of Pakistan People’s Party spent eight years in prison on corruption charges and then served as Pakistan’s president when his political party came to power.
Opinion in Brooklyn was also sharply divided about the arrest of former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf on various charges. “Musharraf should be hanged for arresting Pakistani people and handing them over to other countries,” said 20-year-old computer science student Junaid Nawaz. Ali Adnan Syed disagreed, saying the former army chief had instituted several positive measures and that people were now taking revenge from him due to their personal biases.
Mohammad Shabeer, a taxi driver, who has been living on Coney Island Avenue for the past 23 years, predicted that Musharraf’s political party will perform poorly in the upcoming elections. Although he hoped that PTI would be given a chance, overall he felt upbeat about the difference of opinion prevalent in Pakistan, as far as the support for different political parties was concerned.
But another taxi driver, Zulfiqar Ahmed, 55, said he was confident that Nawaz Sharif was the right choice to lead Pakistan to prosperity. He believed that Imran Khan’s “personal history in marrying a non-Muslim woman did not make him a suitable leader.” Ahmed also said, “We (overseas Pakistanis) pray to God all the time that he bestows Pakistan with an honest leadership.”
The computer science student Nawaz also voiced support for Sharif’s party. “Nawaz Sharif should win because he is better than Asif Ali Zardari and Imran Khan has no experience,” he said.
Perhaps the dominant view in ‘Little Pakistan’ about the elections was best summed up by Rukhsana Zahid, a housewife and mother of three children. She said she would have gone to Pakistan to cast her vote, if the situation in the country had been peaceful. Outlining her hopes for the nation’s upcoming elections she said, “I want Imran Khan to win so that the young generation of Pakistan can come forward and work for the betterment of the country.”