March 24, 2009

Elections in Pakistan: Real or a Hoax?

A few days before Pakistan's recent elections, the Jang newspaper quoted an Islamabad-based Western diplomat as saying: 'We'll see a hung parliament, and most likely the Prime Minister will be from one of the pro-government parties'. One can only speculate if this was a remarkable example of clairvoyance, or if this was more a reflection of how Washington and Islamabad had planned for the outcome to be.

Whereas domestic observers pointed to numerous irregularities in the electoral process, the US was quick to give the elections a clean chit. Writing for the Dawn newspaper, Masood Haider (Oct 12) reported: "The United States said on Friday it accepted the election results in Pakistan as being a credible representation of the full range of opinion in the country". That voter turnout was estimated to be as low as 12 to 15 per cent by Pakistan's Tehrik-i-Insaaf (or around 20% by the PML-N) obviously did not appear to concern US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher. Neither did it seem to worry him how a wide range of election participants and observers had criticized the conduct of the polls and the entire electoral process.

For instance, a Dawn story (Oct 12) spoke of how the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) "regretted that not content with its pre-poll manipulation of the electoral process, the administration seemed to have continued to tamper with it during the polling and afterwards".

The HRCP had fielded over 1,300 field observers, who attempted to monitor the polling in 116 National Assembly constituencies, and closely watched the proceedings at over 500 polling stations. In their reports, they noted that grave irregularities had marred the elections.

For instance, in some districts, (such as in Sanghar) police officers seized polling stations, threw out candidates' polling agents and stamped the ballots themselves. Complaints made to the Election Commission were ignored. At several polling stations in Sindh and Punjab supporters of the military-backed candidates took control of proceedings, threatened the HRCP's observers with violence and prevented their entry into polling booths, as they tampered with the ballots. Ballots were stolen, fake ID cards were in circulation, and many postal ballots were found in unauthorized hands

At some polling stations in Punjab, indelible ink was missing, allowing some voters to cast more than one vote. At other locations, polling stations were changed at the last minute, or valid electoral lists were missing thus preventing legitimate voters from casting their votes. Many voters complained that their names had been omitted from the electoral lists even though they had voted in the previous elections and had not changed residence. Others complained that when they arrived at polling stations they were told that their votes had already been cast. In Kasur district no responsible authority knew where a particular polling station was.

The HRCP also noted that in Sindh, non-Muslim voters were forcibly prevented from casting votes. At some polling stations in Punjab non-Muslim voters' names were missing from the lists. Ahmadis boycotted the polls because they had been unjustifiably put on a separate list. In the north-western tribal areas poll-watchers said not a single woman had cast ballots as of mid-morning, after vows from tribesmen and Islamic party candidates to prevent women from voting.

The HRCP also pointed to complaints concerning post-poll arrangements that reinforced suspicions of poll rigging. Results were inordinately delayed, even from major cities like Lahore and Karachi where there was no ostensible cause for delay. Several candidates complained that their result had been overturned through unfair tactics. There were allegations that some presiding officers were asked to fill new vote-count statements. In Sindh polling was stopped at some stations but results from these stations were included in the final count.

Pakistan's political parties opposed to the military regime (such as the PPP, PML-N, and the MQM) voiced similar complaints. A PML-N spokesperson noted how odd it was that even though the PML-N had swept the polls in Lahore, it had appeared to have done very poorly elsewhere. The PML-N argued that voters in Lahore were not that different in their sentiments from voters in other Punjab cities, and that in previous elections, the PML-N had done better in rural areas than in the cities. The PML-N spokesperson also noted that wherever the pro-Musharraf party had won a seat, voter turn out seemed to jump from an average of 20% to 40% suggesting that ballots had been stuffed, or that fraudulent voting had taken place.

Although the US refrained from acknowledging such serious problems, an EU observer team took a decidedly different position and acknowledged that there had been 'unjustified interference with electoral arrangements and the democratic process' (as reported by the Jang newspaper). In carefully crafted diplomatic language the EU team noted that Pakistan's general election was marked by 'serious flaws', and that it was caused in part by government attempts to stage-manage the vote by limiting the power of the new legislature, barring top opposition candidates, and using state resources to help friendly candidates.

After seizing power in a military coup in 1999, General Musharraf declared himself President, summarily dismissed the legislature and all non-pliant judges, and arbitrarily banned Nawaz Sharif (leader of the PML-N) and Benazir Bhutto (leader of the PPP) from running in the elections. Last month, he extended his term by five years, and also modified the constitution and constituted a new governing body - the "National Security Council" in which the military would hold the balance of power. He also arrogated to himself the right to dismiss any new Government at will.

Women's rights activists complained bitterly of how in a nation where less than half the population is literate, and where women are routinely prevented from going to school in some areas, the mandatory requirement that candidates have a university degree was an especially onerous requirement. This decree effectively barred 90 per cent of the country's largely illiterate population from running.

Critics also pointed to a lack of impartiality shown by the Election Commission and a failure to curb the widespread misuse of state funds by pro-military (and pro-US) parties. There was limited time allotted for electioneering, and election rallies by anti-Musharraf parties were frequently banned or disrupted. The state owned media blatantly promoted the views of the military government view, and some opposition party activists were even gunned down.

It is little wonder that poll participation was very low. Irshad Jabeen, presiding officer at a polling station on the main highway in Rawalpindi observed: "Usually this polling station is crowded but today people are only trickling in.... apparently people are losing interest.” Former PPP national assembly speaker Farooq Ali Khan said: "I have never witnessed such a disappointing show”. Ansar Lajpal, an independent candidate in Multan appeared to suggest that distrust in the military government and the honesty of the electoral machinery had kept voters away: “It seems it is a silent protest by voters against past election riggings”. (From an Oct 11 Times of India Report)

Clearly, the battle for democracy in Pakistan has not been won. It will take all the resourcefulness of the Pakistani people to overcome the crafty machinations of Pakistan's military and sections of the clerical elite who have thrown their weight behind US-backed Pervez Musharraf.

For real democracy to take hold in Pakistan, not only will the people of Pakistan have to fight the internal enemies of democracy, they will also have to overcome the crushing power of the US Pentagon and State Department officials, who even as they lecture other countries on the need for "greater democracy", cynically subvert or stymie moves towards genuine democracy in Pakistan (and other such client states).


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