Recently, I witnessed something remarkable. My cousins, ages four and five, played “election day”. They debated the accomplishments of PML-N and PTI and cast their ballots in front of their older sister, who played the part of a polling officer. I was stunned by what I witnessed. These young children, after watching the television news and listening to their parents debate, were able to regurgitate arguments that pitted the merits of the new metro bus system against the desire for overwhelming change (and, of course, legendary status as a cricketer).

As the PTI leader, Imran Khan, stated on multiple occasions; “change isn’t coming, it is already here.” That change is the political and civic engagement that has permeated every age group, gender, social class and profession. Absolutely everyone is talking about what will happen on May 11 (today) and what that will mean for the future of Pakistan. This heightened engagement should continue indefinitely. We as a people should not be content to remain engaged only during the voting season. The political questions, debates and the push for accountability in the public sector must remain at the forefront of conversation and must remain a priority for Pakistanis. We can never hope to improve our current circumstances and develop our democratic system otherwise.

For Pakistan’s democracy to develop further, certain fundamental principles must be preserved and we know these principles well. The rule of law must be uniformly applied to all citizens. The people, as stated above, must participate fully and actively in political and civic life. Human rights and human dignity must be protected. Finally, free and fair elections must occur. The free and fair elections of May 11 will be the initial step towards a better Pakistan, a Pakistan in which the will of the people is heard and implemented.

Political and civic engagement is not the only pennant marking the tide of change in Pakistan. British author E.M. Forster once said: “Two cheers for ‘democracy’; one because it admits variety, and two because it permits criticism.” What we have witnessed, of late, is a tacit widespread acceptance of plurality of thought. Separate party faithfuls coexist at home, at work and on the streets. Close friends, relatives and relative strangers are debating their viewpoints constantly, in a manner not all that different from my young cousins. Acceptance of a plurality of ideas and viewpoints is becoming more and more rare in a state with an increasing infestation of extremism. The practice of actively and respectfully debating opposing ideals must begin somewhere. Today, it is political parties; tomorrow it may be social norms. Someday it may even be interpretations of religion. This desire for debate and mutual respect to those who contribute is a skill that necessarily extends far beyond the political sphere.

In an era in which the people of this nation are discontent with the current state of affairs, Pakistanis are also increasing personal accountability. They have decided that they intend to vote, to speak their minds and to accept responsibility for their decision. Several weeks prior, many advocates of the democratic process still expressed their desire for military rule.

Nowadays, that desire has disappeared. This means that people recognise their power as an individual within the democratic system of governance. People are now keen to contribute by encouraging everyone to register to vote, attending rallies, canvassing neighbourhoods and by actually voting when the time comes. Where once political criticism was brushed off with a shrug and the suggestion that these were circumstances beyond control, people now enthusiastically jump into the fray.

Who we defend and whom we disparage as our leader is not as important as our awareness of and engagement in the democratic process. Regardless of the outcome of this election cycle, Pakistanis as a people have achieved an admirable level of political engagement, an acceptance of plurality of opinion and a keen interest in taking responsibility for the future of this nation. Pakistan’s election state of mind has set the nation ablaze. It is time to fan the flames by doing our part by voting today and continuing the political engagement long after.

The writer is a researcher and holds the degree of Juris Doctor in law from the University of Notre Dame.