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free, fair, et cetera

The goal of having a free and fair election remains a dream. Will it ever be realised?

free, fair, et cetera

Most of the election experts believe that no general election in Pakistan, including up to a point the 1970 poll, has been free, fair and democratic. It may also be argued that greater efforts have been made by all the parties that had their fingers in the pie to manipulate elections for predetermined results than for allowing the people to freely elect their representatives.

The obstacles to free, fair and democratic elections have repeatedly been identified over the last many years. These include: entrenched socio-economic inequalities, denial of women’s rights to freely vote and contest elections, discrimination against minorities, pegging of election expenses at levels beyond the reach of most of the citizens, absence of mature and sensible politicians who would neither buy votes nor adopt other foul means, and the determination of strong elements in the establishment to define the state’s course and the essential features of the polity.

While little was done during a greater part of our history to remove the barriers to fair election mentioned above, much attention was given to ensuring free casting of ballots and their fair counting. Possession of identity card was made essential for receiving a ballot paper, Unfair practices were identified and punishments prescribed for impersonation, bribery, use of unlawful pressure on voters, disruption of the poll process, stuffing and seizure of ballot boxes, and capturing of polling booths, etc, etc.

These steps have greatly reduced polling day wrongs though, unfortunately, by non-state actors only.

The outgoing government deserves credit for addressing some of the factors that impinge on the fairness of elections before, during and after the polls, and thereby increased the capacity of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to raise the fairness level of elections. The new law gives the ECP full autonomy in delimitation of constituencies and preparation of electoral rolls, though the judiciary has had difficulty in appreciating this autonomy, and the ECP itself has been unable to persuade the government to fully enforce the joint electorate system.

The other healthy initiatives are: the ECP is required to make special efforts to improve enrollment of women and minorities as voters; provision has been made for an improved result announcement and communication system; and election can be cancelled at a polling station or in a whole constituency if the votes cast by women is less than 10 per cent of their registered strength. Further, ECP has been given extraordinary powers to regulate the working of political parties under the enlistment provisions that have resurrected the registration system which had been struck down by the apex court 30 years ago.

The military has pleaded innocence. That cannot please any responsible citizen because he does not want the military to offer infra-dig explanations. The armed forces are the state’s asset. Their services cannot be minimised.

Thus, it can be asserted that the ECP is better equipped than before to guarantee fair polls; in the limited sense this ideal is understood to a greater extent than in the past. The Commission relies a great deal on the effectiveness of the codes of conduct, and its ability to enforce them, that it has devised for candidates, the ECP staff, the media, the election observers, and even for the military, that is being deployed for election duty on an unprecedented scale. For these labours the ECP deserves much credit.

However, the ECP has no answer to the many forms of pre-poll rigging we have witnessed and there are some other matters that could have been handled better.

The way one of the major political parties has been decimated through means overt and covert amounts to pre-poll rigging. True, change of party label by candidates at election time is a common phenomenon. We saw some professional candidates switching over to PPP in 1988 under the impression that the military had no objection to its bid for power. We also saw long queues outside PML-Q’s doors in 2002 because the party was backed by the military ruler. (When the same party lost in 2008 its leaders openly alleged that the military had let them down.) What General Hamid Gul did to prop up IJI and hand over Punjab to Nawaz Sharif in 1988 is no secret.

In view of this record, the extraordinary scale of party hopping is contrary to the law of probability.

The military has pleaded innocence. That cannot please any responsible citizen because he does not want the military to offer infra-dig explanations. The armed forces are the state’s asset. Their services cannot be minimised. Indeed, one shudders to think of what might have happened if the armed forces were not there to strike the fear of God in the hearts of terrorists, extremists and wild politicians. But they must remain true to their oath, as the Quaid-i-Azam had advised them way back in 1948.Those who urge them to consider themselves above any organ of the state, or all of them put together, are not their friends. Above all, they must be, like Caesar’s wife, above suspicion.

The ECP justifies the unprecedented military deployment on the grounds of unusual security threats. Its concerns are valid but they can be met by deploying the military at a short distance from polling stations. There are smaller security challenges that police can handle better, as an SHO told Gen. Asad Durrani with reference to the Lal Masjid operation. Giving military officers magisterial powers does not appear to be in the interest of free polling, democratic process, and the interest of the military itself.

The appearance among candidates of a large number of agitators known for exploiting people’s belief for their own benefit, and displaying financial resources and confidence far in excess of their means, is causing much anxiety. Some persons belonging to banned outfits have taken refuge under already registered/enlisted parties.

Is the ECP really barred from dealing with such blatant circumvention of rules? But then ECP might point to a well-known candidate’s burst of joy at receiving support from a controversial celebrity.

The ECP admits that book that is an election symbol is being presented as The Book and those who do not vote for it are threatened with hell-fire. The ECP knows this but is it really unable to break from a bad precedent?

One wonders how the authorities will condone the huge expenditures on TV campaigns and posters that have made this election the most expensive one in our history.

The curbs on freedom of expression and the antics of the apparently coopted media persons on the TV are easily visible and the authorities’ inaction does raise doubts.

Much can be said about the rough deal offered to the caretaker ministers but that is another story.

Finally, the electoral rhetoric does not inform, educate and edify the electorate. Political rivals are no longer competitors for glory; they are enemies of the people who must be buried under mountains of vulgar expletives. That makes the present election dirtier than ever.

All of this leaves a sour taste in one’s mouth. The goal of having a free and fair election remains a dream. Will it ever be realised? Secondly, those spoiling to come into power had a chance of succeeding in a fair contest. By attracting the stigma of illegitimacy, they will create problems for themselves and the country both.

I.A. Rehman

I. A. Rehman
The author is a senior columnist and Secretary General Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).

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