Symbols Really Matter in Pakistani Voting

Thursday 04 November, 2010 at 6:29 pm / 0 comment

By Michael Smerconish – Daily News
Philadelphia Daily News
Daily News Opinion Columnist

MAIN LINE legend holds that Jackie O once attended a wedding at St. John Vianney in Gladwyne and had to use a restroom at a gas station across the street.

Now we can add to the local lore the day a world leader walked into a polling place in Villanova and got a look at how America votes.

Tomorrow, President Obama is scheduled to travel to India, a subject of some consternation in Pakistan given the tension between the two nations. So when a friend and local businessman named Raza Bokhari offered me the chance to again interview former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, I jumped at the chance. I was eager to hear his views on the Obama visit. Coincidentally, my interview was scheduled for Tuesday as Americans went to the polls in a historic election.

My wife suggested that I take Musharraf to vote with me.

And I did.

En route to my Lower Merion Township polling place, I told him that I was proud not to have missed voting in an election in 30 years. Astoundingly, he then told me he’d become president of Pakistan without ever voting before in his life. We discussed apathy, and I described voter turnout patterns in the U.S., explaining that in 2008, only 63 percent of those eligible came out to vote.

“In Pakistan, it’s the opposite.

“It’s the educated class which does not vote. You said you’ve always voted. Let me shock you by saying that I have never voted – except in the last eight years.

“Yes, in this, I did go to vote. Otherwise, before that, when I was not the president, I never voted,” he told me.

Why not?

“Because I thought it was useless going to vote like that,” he answered.

“So voting is done by, generally, the vast majority of people who are quite illiterate.”

My polling place is quaint, but could be anywhere in Suburbia, USA. Outside, there were yard signs placed by political operatives, in this case in support of Pat Toomey, Joe Sestak, Tom Corbett and Dan Onorato.

At the poll entrance were Republican and Democratic committee persons armed with party ballots. I explained their role to Musharraf while he perused this and other candidate literature.

He also studied the official ballot posted on a wall outside the polling place.

Inside were the usual poll workers and a judge of elections, who graciously allowed me to show my guest the inside of a machine. I explained my option of voting for individual candidates or pushing a single button to vote a straight party line.

The wide eyes of my guest told me this was a departure from what he is used to.

“The difference is in the level of literacy, the level of education in the people,” he said.

“Therefore, in our case, the people put their thumb impressions, and also they vote on symbols because individuals’ names may not be readable to many people. Therefore, every candidate has a symbol. Every party has a symbol. So that’s the way it goes in Pakistan. It’s not computerized at all.”

Musharraf told me he’s

formed a party that will compete in Pakistan’s 2013 election. In fact, he’s already settled on his party’s symbol, a shaheen, which Musharraf equated with a falcon. The symbolism he hopes to use was obvious.

“It flies higher than all other birds. It doesn’t fly in a flock. It is independent. It flies alone. It doesn’t come back to a nest. It goes into the mountains and crevices; it lives there. And also that it doesn’t hunt on anybody, on a prey which has been hunted by somebody else. So I think it’s a symbol which shows independence, which shows courage, which shows confidence.”

I’ve always taken pride in my unblemished voting record, but the reaction of this world leader to our voting system was a great reminder to me of the meaning of our process.

I jokingly told him I could take him into a number of Philadelphia neighborhoods where he, too, could vote, an illegality that’s happened in our not-so-distant past. Florida’s “hanging chad” debacle of 2000 wasn’t a shining moment, either.

But, by and large, we have an orderly, safe and reliable system of voting that rightfully remains the envy of the world. My guest’s reaction was a warning not to take that for granted.

Listen to Michael Smerconish weekdays 5-9 a.m. on the Big Talker, 1210/AM. Read him Sundays in the Inquirer. Contact him via the Web at

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