Saturday, February 16, 2008

The More Things Change..

By Kamal K. Jabbar
In its sixty years of existence, Pakistan, envisioned by its founder as a constitutional republic, has had six periods of martial law, the last between 3rd November and 15th December of last year. On the eve of the general elections on 18th February, as one juxtaposes the past with the present, one gets the inevitable feeling of what the French refer to as "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose"; the more things change, the more they stay the same.

While circumstances and people over the years have changed, certain election trends have remained remarkably consistent. Almost every election every held in the country has been replete with allegations of fraud and duplicity. The charges include, voter and candidate harassment, irregularities in the delimitation of constituencies, the fudging of voter lists, the misuse of state apparatus to assist state-favoured candidates, the active involvement of murkyintelligence agencies, ballot stuffing and biased appointments and conduct of election commissioners and election staff. A rejection of poll results by unsuccessful parties on the above pretexts has been afeature of almost all elections held so far.

In the 1965 presidential elections held under the Constitution of1962, Fatima Jinnah, Ayub Khan's main rival and the chosen candidateof the Combined Opposition Parties (COP) complained bitterly about howstate functionaries were actively impeding her campaign. She publicly stated that "so many obstructions have been placed that my faith inthe whole process has been shaken."

COP's demands for judicial inquiries into election complaints,stricter voter identity checks at polling stations and for judicialofficers (rather than executive officers) to serve as returningofficers were rejected by the government and the Election Commission.Miss Jinnah's demand that polls be held under an impartial, caretakergovernment was similarly brushed aside.

State-run radio, Radio Pakistan served as a propaganda mouthpiece forAyub who had publicly revealed his strongly held belief that democracywas not to the "genius of the Pakistani people", An indication of theGovernment's complicity in fixing Ayub's election comes from the factthat Khan A. Sabur, the serving Central Communications Minister,announced the date of the election to the press even before theofficial announcement by the Election Commission.

In the elections of March 1977 the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA)attributed the PPP's win of almost four-fifths of the availableNational Assembly seats to mass scale rigging, coercion, fraud and theuse of government jeeps and buses in electioneering. According to theZia regime's exhaustive though self-serving 'White Paper' on theelections, Bhutto had used government funds and intelligence and lawenforcement officials to ensure a PPP victory. Even in Bhutto's "safeseat" of Larkana, his opponent, Jan Mohammad Abbasi was arrested andkept at an undisclosed location till after the last date for filing ofnomination papers had passed. So lacking in credibility was thiselection, that even its Chief Election Commissioner, Justice SajjadAhmad Jan termed the process a hoax saying that "the failure of theelectoral process was, by and large, due to the candidates of theruling party who exploited their position and succeeded in hoaxing theofficials in charge of the elections, thus destroying the sanctity ofthe ballot box."

The Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD), many of whoseleaders were in prison at the time, boycotted the February 1985elections held by Zia. Officially, these were party-less polls, thoughstate patronage was decidedly provided to the Jamaat-e-Islami. Thevoters responded by handing a resounding defeat to Zia and his allies.All but one of his Federal Ministers lost in their constituencies andthe Jamaat's showing was dismal at best.

In the October 1990 elections, the Pakistan Democratic Alliance (PDA)which included the PPP, alleged that massive rigging had taken placeto install an Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) government. PresidentGhulam Ishaq Khan, who had dismissed the previous PPP government madeno secret of his preferred party. On the eve of the election he made atelevised speech asking the people to vote against the PDA destroyingevery semblance of the neutrality and impartiality of the office ofthe President. The PDA's White Paper on the elections alleged thatIshaq Khan had set up an election cell at the Aiwan-e-Sadar to closelymonitor and manage the election for it to yield his desired result.

The 1997 general elections which resulted in a two-thirds majority forthe PML (N) were dismissed by Benazir Bhutho as being "engineered".Qazi Hussain Ahmed also rubbished the elections and said that theJamaat would not recognize the government that would emerge.
The 2002 general elections were no exception to the trend and weretermed by national and international organizations, including HumanRights Watch, as being "deeply flawed".

The irony of Pakistan's electoral history is that arguably the freest,fairest and most transparent elections ever held were those under thestewardship of the dissolute General Yahya Khan in 1970.

Referendums have also been mis-used by Generals to validate or prolongtheir illegal tenures.
Pursuant to Ayub's Presidential Order, on the 14th of February 1960,Basic Democrats were required to answer the penetrating question:"Have you confidence in President Field Marshal Muhammad Ayub Khan,Hilal-i-Jurat?" The rules of this farce, set by the regime, stipulatedthat if a majority of the "votes" answered yes then Ayub would bedeemed to have been elected the President of Pakistan, given the soleauthority to produce a new constitution and also to serve as the firstterm as President under it. The regime was proud to announce that95.6% of the votes had gone in Ayub's favour.

Zia was also proud to announce that 97.7% of the people had voted forhim in his 1984 referendum while Musharraf was equally pleased withhis slighter higher showing of 98% approval.

As we move towards the elections on 18th February 2008, it may be safeto say that things have changed. For example, never before has seventypercent of Pakistan's judiciary been deposed and incarceratedillegally.

Other things, however, remain consistent with the past. We have a"president" who has addressed political rallies favouring oneparticular party. Resources of the state have been used to assist thisparty. Violence and bloodshed has visited us. District judges havebeen frantically transferred. The issue of millions of missing votersremains unresolved as do issues of delimitation.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose!

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