Pakistanis hit the polls today amidst delayed ballots, long lines, blasts at polling sites, unprecedented voter turnout, and record participation from young voters. This is the first time in the country's 66-year-old history that a democratically-elected government will transfer power to another democratically-elected government, and no matter who wins in the polls, this election is a watershed moment in Pakistan's troubled history.
Militant factions have tried relentlessly to intimidate and overwhelm the public with violence, but that now seems to have been the rallying cry of a failing establishment. Tired of being victims, voters emerged today to regain their country.
Here are some of the horrifying and inspiring things that happened just on election day itself to prove that no matter the outcome, Pakistan will be a new nation tomorrow.
1. Pakistani Women Defy Taliban
Female candidates unrelated to established political parties are braving death threats and bombings to campaign in a male-dominated political platform.
Musarrat Shaheen is contesting Fazlur Rehman, head of a faction of the Islamist Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F) party, for a seat in her frontier home town close to Afghanistan's violent border. Veero Kohli, pictured above, escaped slavery as a bonded laborer and is now campaigning for workers' rights against better-funded opponents.
Badam Zari is the first woman to ever contest a federally-administered tribal area election. These are the regions bordering Afghanistan that purportedly hide some of the world's most feared terrorists.
Malala Yousufzai — the young activist that was targeted by the Taliban last year — published a letter in a prominent Pakistani newspaper encouraging everyone, especially women, to use their vote to improve Pakistani society.
These brave women are publicly challenging oppressive regimes and risking their lives to do so.
2. Blasts at Election Sites
The Taliban continued its strategy of violence to intimidate and sway elections as people were going to the polls.
Blasts occurred on election day at polling sites in northeastern Peshawar and targeting the headquarters of left-of-center Awami National Party in Karachi. Gunmen also attacked a polling station in the Baloch town of Sorab, and supporters of rival candidates in the town of Chaman squared off in a shoot-out.
The unprecedented violence in this election cycle is a signifier of the Pakistani Taliban's attempt to hold the country hostage in fear and prove the government's ineffectiveness. They have focused their attacks on secular and moderate candidates, but even the rallies of prominent Islamist candidates have been attacked as a desperate show of power.
Pakistanis have to continue their resilience against these empty acts of violence after the elections as well if the country is to sideline them for good.
3. Huge Voter Turnout and Wait Lines
This election's main story after the violence is the voter turnout. An unprecedented 60-80% turnout is expected today despite the string of violence and an election-related death toll reaching 132 on election day.
Average waits of three hours were reported by the Election Commission, caused by delayed openings of stations, missing ballots and ballot boxes, and allegations of vote rigging.
Pakistani citizens living abroad reportedly flew back in droves just to have their vote included. The youth vote is predominantly singled out as the cause of increased voter turnout, and is expected to propel Imran Khan's PTI party to the helm.
Nonetheless, the young are not the only demographic aware of the momentum this election has generated. BBC's chief Islamabad correspondent reported the "humbling [sight of] old men and women, unable to walk on their own, bent over, and bent on casting a ballot ... It wasn't a perfect election. No-one expected that."
4. Social Media and Global News Amplify Pakistani Voices
This election has been followed very closely by the global press and on social media, empowering the Pakistanis to have their issues propelled into the global conversation.
Social media played an especially important role not just in sharing information during the violent attacks, but also to continue debating ideas and candidates' platforms in a highly visible way.
As Asia Society's Bilal Lakhani writes, "If Facebook had a vote button, Pakistan's liberal elite would be able to cast their votes in the upcoming elections without an existential threat to their lives."
The intimidation of this election cycle has been relegated to physical violence, but social media provided an open and safe platform to empower the opinions of all Pakistanis. This experience will only promote the dialectic needed to ensure a healthy democracy, and one can only hope it will engage a whole new generation of Pakistanis to feel committed to reform.