February 16, 2008

Mother of all elections

Filed under: ELECTIONS - 2008 — civilsocietypakistan @ 4:20 am
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FEBRUARY 16, 2008

Shamshad Ahmad

With just two days left before what President Musharraf calls “mother of all elections,” questions continue to abound on their credibility and fairness and on the very legitimacy of the system in which these elections are being held. No one trusts the neutrality of the caretaker set-up or independence of the Election Commission. In the absence of pre-poll fair play and equity, no one expects the electoral process to be above board, free, fair or transparent.

President Pervez Musharraf addressing a select gathering in Islamabad on Thursday promised that “Despite all rumours, insinuations and every type of apprehension, these elections will be free, fair, transparent and peaceful.” No one takes these assertions seriously. Major political parties, in particular, continue to remain skeptical and are wary of governmental claims on its own role in ensuring the credibility of the upcoming elections. 

It is difficult to believe that any elections can be free, fair and transparent in a state of illegitimacy in which the judiciary, the media and the constitution remain strapped with post-November 3 draconian curbs and limitations. Extra-constitutionality is now the order of the day.

Most civil society groups and pro-democracy non-governmental organisations are stressing that “free, fair and transparent” elections would not be possible in the absence of a truly independent judiciary. More than sixty judges who refused to take oath under PCO are still being treated like prisoners. Massive pre-poll rigging is evident and equally massive polling-day and post-polling day irregularities are not ruled out.

No wonder, President Musharraf was angry at these pro-democracy NGOs which he alleged were biased against the government, and warned them not to “mislead” the people in Pakistan. He also cautioned against exaggerated expectations of “some” political parties and said that “ground realities must be accepted, and results should be allowed to speak for themselves.” The question is what ground realities and which results. 

According to a Gallup Pakistan survey on behalf of the Citizens’ Group on Electoral Process (CGEP), only 15% of the country’s population expects the elections to be completely free and fair; the remaining are divided between those who expect elections to be rigged (53%) and others who say they could not give a definite answer at this time (32%).

Globally too, there is growing interest and anxiety in the electoral transparency as a sine qua non for the future of democracy in Pakistan. The European Union has renewed its call for immediate release of political detainees, including judges and lawyers, “as an essential step in restoring confidence in the independence of the judiciary, rule of law and democratic process.”

The EU which is sending a strong contingent of observers has expressed serious concern over a number of issues relating to the conduct of elections and urged the authorities to take steps in the remaining days to improve the conditions in which the elections were being held, including preventing local government officials from misusing state machinery.The EU has laid special emphasis on the transparency of the electoral process through open and consultative election administration, strict neutrality of caretaker governments at national and provincial levels, and freedom for the media to cover all aspects of the election process.

In a statement released this week by the French Embassy in Islamabad, the EU also called for immediate release of political detainees, including the judges and lawyers, “as an essential step in restoring confidence in the independence of the judiciary, rule of law and democratic process.” This would be an important step in creating an environment conducive to free and fair elections, the statement said.

The US has regularly been stressing the need for credibility of elections in Pakistan. Only this week, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that the United States was concerned over the potential for violence during the Feb 18 elections in Pakistan. On a question about the standards the Bush administration had set to judge the fairness of these elections, she said that Pakistani authorities have been clearly told that the elections must be free enough to inspire confidence and encourage people to get to vote freely. Everyone agrees on the crucial importance of these elections for the future of our nation. They are supposed to be the last opportunity for the people of Pakistan to flag their “sovereign” will to be the masters of their own destiny. They have waited for too long to exercise their “inalienable” right to “choose or change” their government through an independently cast ballot.
Only free and fair elections will enable them to give their call loud and clear. But the question is who will ensure the credibility of “free and fair” elections? The foremost requirement for free and fair elections is to have a truly non-partisan and empowered “national consensus” caretaker government and an independent Election Commission which are acceptable to all political parties. But the signs are already ominous. The caretaker set-up and the Election Commission both are neither neutral nor independent of the ruling political dispensation. There are serious questions surrounding the role of the state in the whole process which has been flawed to its core. The Election Commission that we now have is handpicked with no semblance of independence or freedom of action.

The most tragic aspect of these elections is the unprecedented violence and uninhibited foreplay of power at the cost of hundreds of innocent lives and institutional integrity. The overall law and order situation in the country has seriously impaired the atmosphere for smooth unimpeded election campaign. The playfield remains uneven and heavily tilted against the opposition parties and their candidates.
A civil society group called Citizens’ Group on Electoral Process (CGEP) under the auspices of PILDAT has recently evaluated the overall fairness of the pre-poll environment spanning over 12 months, and gave it a poor assessment with a score of 26 on a scale of 100. This confirms the fears that the pre-poll election phase has been unfair to a large degree and the prospects of credibility of the entire electoral process are very slim.

The recent actions of the government clearly show that it has no intention of providing a level playing field to opposition political parties as is evident from its vindictive rejection of the nomination papers of PML-N leaders, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and former Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif.

The partisan role of local governments at all levels and their nazims is no secret. The bulk of polling staff coming from the local government departments are highly vulnerable to pressures from nazims and other senior government officials. Reliable reports indicate an alleged massive misuse of government resources and power. State funds and personnel are being used for running the Queue League election campaign and for extensive pre-poll rigging.

PILDAT’s Citizens Group fact finding missions to selected districts of Attock, Gujrat, Sialkot, Badin and Thatta have revealed serious irregularities first hand in the form of direct involvement of caretaker ministers and nazims in the election campaigns, posting and transfers during the election period, large scale multi-entries in computerised electoral rolls, FIRs as a means of political victimisation, polling schemes to the disadvantage of voters, violation of election code of conduct, use of government resources and strong arm tactics to queer the electoral pitch.

The pre-poll rigging generally refers to selectively apply the rules of level-playing field in favour of or against any candidate or party. We are already witnessing violations of constitutional requirements of “neutrality of the caretaker government, independence of the Election Commission and its judicial role, neutrality of the election staff.”
The polling-day rigging involves violations of the integrity of the ballot box. There can be different means of interfering with the ballot box, such as “tampering with and stuffing ballot boxes, impersonation and multiple voting, prevention of voting by persons or groups through unlawful means including coercion, dishonest counting of votes and dishonest tabulation of results.

On the polling day, two specific areas in election administration will be of particular concern: procedures for aggregating votes from different polling stations and their counting; and timely adjudication and remedy of election disputes. Political parties and civil society groups must remain watchful in ensuring that the official staff at the polling stations is not used to manipulate the results of polls.
In order to ensure transparency of the results process, it would be necessary for the detailed results to be displayed in polling stations immediately after counting is complete, and to publicly display a detailed breakdown of polling station results at the constituency level as soon as the tabulation process is complete.

The post-poll rigging would primarily include actions aimed at dishonouring of the election results, and would be seen in the absence of fair play and equity in the post-election formation of governments. This scenario could include use of public resources or pressure tactics to influence, affect or alter the formation of governments.
The blatant instance would be the formation of a government by those who do not have majority or by demolishing a government of those who have the requisite majority and are upheld by the will of the people. This amounts to stealing of elections and defeating the will of the people. Hopefully, the “mother of all elections” will not be stolen. The will of the people shall prevail.

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