The Three Casualties of a Disastrous, Fraudulent Local Bodies’ Poll

By Farhatullah Babar

ISLAMABAD, September 4: The three serious casualties of the just concluded local polls are the Election Commission, citizens’ trust in the State and General Musharraf’s agenda of Enlightened Moderation.

Historically each election of sorts has dented the credibility of the Election Commission. The 2005 polls are no exception. Remember how the Election Commission was diminished when the Chief Election Commissioner declared in December 1984 to an unbelieving nation that an unprecedented 63 per cent voters had voted “yes” in General Zia’s referendum.

Remember the mortal blow dealt to the Commission when soon after another referendum in April 2002, the CEC Justice Irshad Hasan Khan appeared on national television and reciting the kalima announced to a shocked people that General Musharraf had won hands down in a transparent and fair vote in the referendum.

Remember the very poignant commentary on the Election Commission made at the time by Dr. Sher Afgan Niazi who now sits in the Cabinet as a minister and is seen as the constitutional wizard of the ruling coalition.

Writing in a national Urdu daily he had said: “I have not the least hesitation in asserting that the Chief Election Commissioner late Justice Nusrat blackened his face and also that of the entire nation in Zia’s 1984 referendum.”

“The present CEC (Justice Irshad Hasan Khan),” he continued with reference to the Musharraf referendum “has not only blackened his face but also sold his conscience. This is his (Justice Irshad’s) second assault on the nation. Previously as Chief Justice he not only upheld usurpation of power by General Musharraf but also gave him powers to amend the Constitution — a power not even available to the Supreme Court itself.”

Some 60 people were killed and over 800 injured, some seriously, in the two phased polls. When the EC declared that the killings were not election related and were the result of personal rivalries, it dumb-founded the people.

State functionaries, including chief ministers and ministers, went around announcing development schemes to influence voters. The Army Chief General Musharraf addressing a public meeting in Swat asked people to vote for the Muslim League besides reportedly announcing development schemes for Rawalpindi. In doing so, he mocked the code of conduct but when the EC chose not to take notice, it did no great service to itself.

Hundreds of complaints flooded the offices of the Returning Officers and to the Election Commission. The victims complained about kidnappings of candidates and their supporters, forcible seizure of polling booths, snatching of ballot boxes and stuffing by the police. Many protested against biased presiding officers who would deliberately go slow, taking as long as forty minutes for a single vote cast in areas where the government nominees were not likely to win. Where some presiding officers were caught while stamping ballots they were bailed out the next day.

Fake criminal cases have been filed against candidates and their supporters, as well as of shifting of polling stations to hostile areas or unpopulated areas to prevent voters from casting votes. Blatant threats were hurled by a Chief Minister boasting that he could change loyalties in 15 minutes, half the time taken by his predecessor to do so.

When the EC claims that elections were fair or does not seem to follow up on the complaints or says that no complaints with proofs have been received it does not help in enhancing the credibility of polls. Despite promising to announce the results within 48 hours, the results were delayed by several days amid accusations that these were being manipulated and changed particularly in Sindh.

Soon after the polls the Election Commission announced heavy turnout even before the declaration of official results. Media reports quoting the Election Commission talking of a 60 per cent turnout, questioned what mechanism was employed to arrive at this figure so early. In the absence of computerized voting and counting, a definite figure about the turnout would appear inexplicable.

Several key government figures including federal ministers Dr Sher Afgan Niazi, Jehangir Tareen and Awais Leghari, ruling Party MP Firdous Ashiq, former minister Majid Malik, and others besides the opposition have cried foul. Is it any surprise that the Election Commission should have become the casualty?

Deep erosion of citizen’s trust in the State and its institutions and consequently the deepening of the crisis of confidence has been the second serious casualty of polls. When all the State institutions bend over backwards and pretend that the elections were party-less and non-political the mockery must deepen the distrust of these institutions.

Heavens would not have fallen if it had been admitted that the elections were party based. By asking people to believe that they were party-less amounts to insulting their intelligence and eroding the credibility of the State itself. It would be most unfortunate if hurt by this crisis of confidence some people begin to demand elections under the United Nations because its own institutions have proved incapable of stopping the subversion of the will of the people.

This crisis of confidence will only strengthen the prophets of doom, who claim that Pakistan was a failed State. It is not but a handful of short-sighted people blinded by self-aggrandisement have done incalculable harm by lending support to the theory of a failed state. There is an urgent need to wash such perceptions by restoring rule of law and respecting the will of the people.

Inaugurating the Askari Park in Karachi on Friday, General Musharraf claimed that the moderates had won and the extremists had lost in the elections, not realizing that his agenda of so-called moderation has actually been a casualty rather than a trophy.

Look who claims to have won? Those who opposed Musharraf’s moderation on issues ranging from religious columns in passports, to marathon races, to amendments on Hudood laws and to foreign students in madrassas have manipulated the State apparatus to make it a one party affair.

If their claims are true, the anti-moderation group has acquired greater strength to defy the General’s liberal agenda. Yet, he claims that the moderates have won. How strange are the illusions by which men sustain themselves.

All military rulers have flaunted local governments as non-political bodies for development at the local level. But in due course of time they helplessly watched the local bodies turn into heavily politicized institutions. Holding money and manpower, the local bodies of 2005 will now acquire greater political clout and ability to manipulate the National and Provincial Assembly elections, which may not be far away. The pillar on which General Musharraf had raised the edifice of sustainable democracy has finally come crashing down.

The writer is a PPP Senator and member of the Defence Committee of the Senate.

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