In Pakistan, everybody’s hooked on American presidential debates

History is being made this election, and not only with the prospect of choosing the nation’s first black president or first female vice president.

An overwhelming number of people in Pakistan have tuned in to watch the U.S. presidential debates and appear to be enthralled by them.

The Voice of America (VOA) partnered with the Pakistan Television Network (PTV) to broadcast all three presidential debates between Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) in Pakistan’s native Urdu language.

On each night of the debate, the program consisted of a 30-minute lead-up to the debate and an hour of post-debate discussion among two political analysts and a moderator in both Islamabad and Washington.

Much of the discussion centered on U.S. foreign policy and the country’s attitude towards Pakistan, said Kokab Farshori, the D.C.-based moderator. But what surprised him most was how interested Pakistanis were in the U.S. political process and domestic issues.

The VOA was not certain to broadcast the second and third debates. Pakistan’s TV network was not initially on board to do the second debate because it was set to broadcast on Oct. 8 — the third anniversary of the earthquake that killed more than 70,000 people in Pakistan — and they had planned tribute coverage.

But ratings for the first debate were so high that advertisers immediately signed up to buy airtime during the second and third debates, said Farshori.

The VOA is still calculating the official number of people who tuned in to watch the program. PTV claims to reach about 90 percent of the 166 million people living in Pakistan.

Among the most interesting reactions from Pakistanis were those that came from the tribal regions along the country’s western border with Afghanistan.

“We were not expecting such a response from the tribal areas because of the reports we hear about the anti-U.S. sentiment in those regions … [W]hy would they be interested in the United States?” Farshori said.

Pakistan has followed previous U.S. elections but not to this extent, said Farshori. Like Americans, he said, Pakistanis are divided over whether to support McCain or Obama.

“This time there’s even more excitement because of two terms of President Bush and Obama with his statements about Pakistan,” said Farshori, referring to comments Obama made in August saying that he would launch cross-border attacks into Pakistan to strike at terrorists if Pakistan would not assist in their capture.

Regardless of election results, which the VOA plans to broadcast, the Urdu debate programming might have changed Pakistani politics.

“I’m sure with this kind of exposure during the next election people will be demanding that candidates come face to face,” Farshori said.

“There has been this great desire in Pakistani voters that they want to see politicians go out and explain what they will do and answer tough questions.”