In NYC’s Pakistani Enclaves, Most Cheer Imran Khan

Imran Khan’s supporters at a victory rally in Jackson Heights on July 26. (Photo by Mohammad Farrukh)

The victory of Pakistan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf (Pakistan Justice Movement party) of former cricket star-turned-politician Imran Khan in the controversy-marked general elections has received a mostly enthusiastic response in New York City, even as some in the community question the results. Khan’s PTI won 116 National Assembly seats in a house of 272 in the July 25 ballot, and is almost certain to form the next government. The Pakistan Muslim League party of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif (who just started serving a 10-year prison sentence for corruption) and former president Asif Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party won 64 and 47 seats respectively.

It will be the first time since 1988 that Pakistan will have an elected prime minister from a third party. Zardari’s PPP and Sharif’s PML have been taking turns governing the South Asian nation after each election – except for the period of military rule of Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

Sharif’s party has rejected the election results, alleging large-scale vote rigging. However, Shehbaz, the three-time chief minister of the country’s largest Punjab province and younger brother of Sharif, hours before the country’s election commission announced the first result, did not clarify if his party would sit in the parliament or forego it, forcing another election. There are indications that its members will sit in the parliament on the opposition benches.

The PPP, the religious parties alliance Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) and the Awami National Party (ANP) have also rejected the results. The independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan reported that women were being denied access to ballot boxes in many regions after being asked who they intended to vote for. Failure of the election commission’s Result Transmission System (RTS) on election night added to the controversy.

The expected prime minister Imran Khan, in a televised address, after the election commission results showed his party’s victory, has assured the opposition that there will be a transparent investigation in constituencies where rigging is alleged to have taken place. Khan and his supporters contest the opposition’s claims, insisting that the exercise was fair and the results reflect the public opinion polls released ahead of July 25 ballot.

The chief observer of the European Union Election Observation Mission to Pakistan, Michael Gahler, said the elections featured a “lack of equality,” meaning that a level playing field did not exist for all parties. Pakistan’s Chief Election Commissioner Sardar Raza Khan, a former Supreme Court judge who was appointed by Nawaz Sharif in 2014, rejected allegations of rigging, insisting that the commission “did our job right.”

It was one of the bloodiest elections in the country’s history. Three election candidates were among almost 200 people who died in suicide bomb attacks in the runup and on the election day. The government deployed 372,000 troops at 85,307 polling stations. Opposition parties accuse the powerful military of influencing election outcomes through direct and indirect interference.

But in New York’s numerous Pakistani enclaves, the results were greeted with more equanimity. “This was certainly expected,” Shahid Pirzada, a longtime supporter of Khan and resident of Staten Island, told Voices of NY. It’s only natural that Sharif’s party, after wielding power, would challenge the results.

Agha Mohammad Saleh, who ran for Pakistan’s parliament on a PPP ticket in the 1990s, agrees with Pirzada. “They will use every tactic to portray themselves as the victims,” he said, stressing that while “some of the results might have been manipulated,” the PTI won majority seats through a democratic process. “And if the army is supporting the process, what’s wrong with that?” he added. Saleh, who endured solitary confinement during the rule of former dictator Gen. Ziaul Haq, thought the elections may have been influenced by the military in some districts.

“Victory car rally”

Khan’s supporters started celebrating his party’s victory even before the election results started rolling in. PTI enjoys visible support in the Pakistani diaspora in New York and across the U.S. Its supporters have been sending hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to Khan’s party and his philanthropy that runs Pakistan’s largest hospitals for cancer treatment.

Some of Khan’s supporters announced a “victory car rally for Naya (new) Pakistan” on Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn’s Little Pakistan before the July 25 ballot. A formal invitation from several community activists was making the rounds on WhatsApp groups and social media as early as Monday July 23, asking community members to join the “victory” party.

Celebrations were held in Edison, New Jersey, Jackson Heights, Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Long Island where sweets were distributed and party zealots danced to the drumbeats. In Jackson Heights, dozens of PTI supporters gathered at Diversity Plaza. Holding red and green party flags bearing Khan’s photo aloft, activists called out slogans in favor of PTI and Khan.

Imran Khan’s supporters at a restaurant in Jackson Heights on July 26. (Photo by Mohammad Farrukh)

Still, Sharif has some supporters in New York City, who minced no words in rejecting the results.

Rohail Dar, who heads the U.S. chapter of Sharif’s Muslim League, believes that the rigging started months before the elections, when National Assembly constituencies were delimited and many candidates affiliated with his party were coerced to either change loyalties or run as independents.

He claimed that the entire process was “compromised and engineered” through a deliberate slowdown in vote casting, voter intimidation and ballot stuffing. Some in Sharif’s party have directly accused the military of influencing election results.

Dar fears more political instability in the coming weeks, even though he hopes his party will sit on the opposition benches in the parliament. “After all it’s our country and more political instability is not good for our economy,” he said, adding: “We owe it to our voters who gave us a mandate to serve them in positions they have sent us to.”

Dar believes Khan will not be able to deliver on his promises simply because “he is incapable” of doing that. “I will salute him if he delivers even on 10 percent of his promises.”

Syed Adnan Bukhari, an environmental health and safety professional at the NYC Department of Environmental Protection, who does not support any political party in Pakistan, thinks Khan “definitely” has some support from the civil military establishment. He, however, does not believe there was massive vote-rigging. While he believes there may have been some isolated incidents, he stressed that Khan’s support is “genuine.”

Bukhari said that unlike him, his entire family supports Khan. “All my relatives in Karachi voted for Khan. People are sick and tired of traditional politicians, they want change,” he said while referring to the popularity of PTI amongst millennials. “Imran Khan is educated and can bring the many changes Pakistanis yearn for.”

Future of Pakistan-U.S. relations

The State Department has cautiously welcomed the elections, while expressing concern over “flaws in the pre-voting electoral process.”

“The United States concurs with the conclusions of the European Union Election Observation Mission, whose report notes that while there were positive changes to the legal framework for elections in Pakistan, these were overshadowed by restrictions on freedom of expression and unequal campaign opportunities,” State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said in a statement. The U.S. also expressed deep reservations over the participation of terrorist-affiliated individuals in the elections.

The statement said as Pakistan’s elected leaders form a new government, the United States will look for opportunities to work with them “to advance our goals of security, stability, and prosperity in South Asia.”

Given Khan’s lack of experience in foreign policy, many in Pakistan and overseas worry how it will impact Pakistan’s relations with the United States. Relations between the two long-time allies have been at their lowest ebb in the Trump presidency.

Khan has been a critic of U.S. policy toward Pakistan and Afghanistan. However, he promised to work for “mutually beneficial” relations in his post-election speech, and he also promised sweeping reforms to bring cleaner governance to the South Asian nation that has been plagued by endemic corruption.

PML’s Dar believes that Khan will have no impact on U.S.-Pakistan relations. “He has no role in Pakistan’s relations with the U.S. because the policy is controlled by the army.”

But most Pakistani immigrants of different political shades hope that U.S.-Pakistan relations will improve under Khan.

Said Muzamil Anwer, a PTI activist and a former president of the party’s New York chapter: “We are looking forward to an honest relationship with the U.S.,” adding that bilateral relations will reach “new heights” under Prime Minister Khan. He said it was the first time in many years that Pakistan will have a prime minister who enjoys huge support in the diaspora in the U.S., and the community here will work hard to build new bridges of understanding for improved relations between the two countries.

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