Hard studio lights glare down and cameras roll as Arshad Bhatti, the owner of a coffee shop in Islamabad, tries to convince a panel of three sharply dressed TV hosts, through sweats and stutters, that he is the man they are looking for: He should be the next prime minister of Pakistan.
"There's always some creative tension in the beginning," he says from behind a dais emblazoned with the words "PM" in red. "But you'll see, I'll get comfortable really quickly," he smiles.
"Enter the Prime Minister," Pakistan's first reality TV show of its kind, begins broadcasting this month. The show, a politicized variation of "American Idol," aims to find the perfect candidate for the premiership in time for the elections scheduled for Jan. 8, 2008.
But it is also a genuine forum for political discussion for Pakistan's newly politicized and increasingly vocal upper middle class – "a thinking minority" as Mr. Bhatti describes it – that is still on the fringes of political power but has become increasingly active in the streets this year, especially after the military attempted to crush the judiciary and choke independent media. They are the activist lawyers, students, academics, and journalists who have come out in hoards as the traditional political elites appear stumped by President Musharraf's aggressive power play.
DAWN's intervention in the Pakistani democratic system gives contestants, including eccentric businessmen, quirky activists, slick bankers, lawyers, and other working professionals, a free forum to explain to a panel of three judges – one especially hard-nosed – how they, as prime minister, could solve the country's decades-old chronic failure to create a functional civilian government.
"It's a reality TV-cum-game show for an educated audience," explains Azhar Abbas, the news director at DAWN. "The point is really to have an insightful debate between top politicians but also civil society and people from the corporate sector about what kind of leadership Pakistanis expect and need now."
The latest disappointment for Musharraf's opponents has been former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who had been adamant about boycotting elections ever since he returned from exile last month. After weeks of negotiations, he had finally given up on his strategy on Sunday, and began his election campaign Monday. Many in the street movement hoped that a boycott by Mr. Sharif would severely discredit the election process, which they say will be rigged in favor of Musharraf's loyalists.
Their numbers may be small, but this section of society makes up for that by the disproportionate power they wield, thanks to the important positions they hold in the many social sectors and industries they represent.
"Beyond what they think of certain theoretical issues," says Nusrat Amin, one of the judges on the show, "we also need to see how the candidates plan to deal with the very real internal and external pressures that come with the position."
"When democracy fails to deliver," claims a full-page newspaper ad seeking contestants, "the media has a reasonable right to intervene." And because of mass media such as DAWN news, which became Pakistan's only 24-hour English news channel when it was established this year by one of the country's most powerful media barons, the chattering classes will have an even larger voice among the influential in the weeks before the election.
"This show just shows that the supply side" of candidates for the position "is very large," says Shahzeb Khan Qasim, a 26-year-old contestant who is a banker from the historically ill-represented province of Balochistan. "But on the demand side, there's only one seat. So Pakistanis can really raise the standard of who can be elected," he adds.
DAWN NEWS is mainly watched in urban centers, where English is spoken and understood by a relatively small section of the Pakistani population. The creators and hosts admit that this won't be a forum to inaugurate populist platforms, but rather, a place for a policy debate to get going. Hundreds of applications have been vetted, and some who "weren't educated enough about the issues" or didn't have "command of the language" had to be left out.
Later, at "Civil Junction," the upscale coffeehouse he owns in Islamabad, Bhatti appears more relaxed. His customers – political activists, artists and musicians, university students, journalists and wel-to-do urbanites – sit in huddles choosing from the whimsical offerings on the menu: "Military Intervention" (Some like it, some hate it, but all take it; quietly cooked in chaotic political pressure cooker) or "American Democracy" (Weaker eggs beaten beyond recognition, mixed with maverick chicken from Texas).
Despite his political overtures, Bhatti, who describes himself as a "postmodern feminist," is an outsider to the strong political establishment. Nevertheless, he has decided to run for a seat in the general elections scheduled for January. And now that he's on a reality TV show that seeks the ideal prime minister for Pakistan, he can't help but cautiously dream of leading the country into the future. "It's a free campaign really," he says sipping on a "Musharraf Guesspresso" (its base is very, very strong and the real kick is in the aftertaste). "I see it as divine intervention."
And the prize for the winner? Two return tickets to Washington, D.C. After convincing Pakistanis they are right for the job, "we think that's the next logical next step," jokes the producer, Mr. Abbas.