CIVIL SOCIETY PAKISTAN

December 24, 2007

Level playing far afield

Filed under: ELECTIONS - 2008 — civilsocietypakistan @ 4:44 am
December 24, 2007 Monday Zilhaj 13, 1428


DAWN

By Raja Asghar
ISLAMABAD, Dec 23: With 15 days left for the Jan 8 general election and after a blood-stained Eidul Azha, Pakistan seems far from a level playing field President Pervez Musharraf had promised to persuade opposition parties to join rather than boycott the electoral process.

Complaints are galore from across the country, particularly the Punjab and Sindh provinces, about alleged use of official machinery in support of the former ruling coalition to stem an opposition tide fuelled by former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif.

Both the populist leaders were allowed to end their self-imposed or forced foreign exile as a confidence-building measure for what was promised to be free, fair and transparent elections and a level playing field for all parties.

Opposition fears of vote rigging, as happened in the 2002 elections, increased after the president used his then second position as army chief on Nov 3 to declare an extra-constitutional emergency, suspend the constitution, sack about 60 judges of superior courts, impose new curbs on the media and detain thousands of political and legal activists. That strengthened the opposition�s poll boycott camp.

But even after the boycott camp broke up with the two mainstream parties � Ms Bhutto�s Pakistan People�s Party (PPP) and Mr Sharif�s Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) � and some other groups opting to contest the election, the lifting of the emergency and restoration of an amended constitution, as well as a public reiteration by the president about a level-playing field could hardly clear the clouds of suspicion.

Concerns have also been voiced both by domestic and foreign human rights groups about the possibility that the Jan 8 vote would be rigged to deny mainly the PPP and the PML-N a victory and to bring about a parliament that would not be able to undo what President Musharraf had done after the Nov 3 emergency.While the parties boycotting the elections from the platform of the All Parties Democratic Movement (APDM) have threatened to launch an anti-vote campaign after Eid, the government has done little to allay these fears except issuing denials.

There were added worries about the law and order situation and the fate of the elections after Friday�s bomb attack on an Eid prayer congregation inside a mosque in former interior minister Aftab Ahmed Sherpao�s home village of Sherpao in the North West Frontier Province that killed 56 people.

Questions were being asked what could happen to the Jan 8 vote if there were more similar bloodbaths.

The opposition parties are complaining almost daily about what they see as a partisan role of the interim governments at the centre and in the four provinces, the use of the local government institutions and intelligence agencies and the Election Commission�s failure to rectify the alleged wrongdoings. They also are not ready to seek a redress from the present judiciary that took oath under a now withdrawn Provisional Constitution Order (PCO) after Nov 3 � as Mr Sharif and his brother Shahbaz Sharif preferred not to go to the �PCO judges� to challenge the rejection of their candidatures by the election authorities.

While there seemed no time left now for the acceptance of the opposition demands for a new independent Election Commission and an interim government of national consensus, the most frequent complaints in recent days related to the role of local government institutions, which are dominated by the formerly ruling Pakistan Muslim League (PML) or its allies, such as the Muttahida Qaumi Movement in Karachi, and which the opposition parties had sought to be suspended well before the elections.

Government and PML spokesmen deny the powerful local government Nazims are using their influence and resources to back their party candidates, who are also their relatives in many cases. In arguing that suspension of such institutions for the sake of free elections is not done in the rest the world apparently ignore that what Pakistan has gone through specially recently is hardly the norm in any country with a semblance of democracy.

�There is no level playing at all,� PPP spokesman Farhatullah Babar said on Sunday, complaining the authorities had not addressed what he called six �fundamental issues� raised by his party such as the role of the Election Commission.

Talking to Dawn by telephone while accompanying Ms Bhutto during her election trail, he said the Election Commission was not independent as it had not been able to act upon hundreds of PPP complaints or restrain intelligence agencies in cases of their �blatant interference� to seek disqualification of some party candidates in Sindh and Balochistan provinces.

Mr Babar said the Commission had failed to place the voters� list on its website, remove faults of the 2002 list and accept the PPP demand not to allow improvised polling stations that could mislead voters at the eleventh hour, rescind mass transfers in the judiciary and executive in the provinces or address concerns about the possibility of the distribution of �pre-stamped ballot papers� for use by pro-government candidates.

Opposition campaign is also hit by the new media curbs that keep one major private television news channel off the Pakistani cable networks and have tamed most of others that were permitted after suffering varying periods of Nov 3 suspensions but without some popular programmes of political discussions or live coverage of events.

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