Archive for January, 2008

Fair and free elections

Pakistan is slowly albeit grudgingly moving towards general elections on February 18th, 2008. All major parties are agreeing to participate in the elections while maintaining a pressure on the government by demanding fair and free elections. The statements made by PPP, PML (N) and PML (Q) leadership suggest that elections will not achieve the end which is a stable political environment in which people can feel safe and advance their lives. PPP co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari has gone so far as claim that the next government will be formed by PPP by winning the elections. PML (N) Chairman Main Nawaz Sharrif has repeatedly demonstrated that they will not accept the leadership of President Pervez Musharraf. PML (Q) leadership is targeting their opposition with negative campaign slogans which are reciprocated by Asif Ali Zardari. In this environment the nation is nervously watching the next phase of their volatile life while the prices of basic commodities are sky rocketing beyond the reach of common man. The question no one is willing to answer is how do they define fair and free elections?

In a nation where there is no balance of power between various institutions it is quite natural that various parts of the government will strive to gain maximum advantage from any future set-up. Military leadership abusing their powers use Inter Services Intelligence Agency (ISI) to maintain a dossier on civilian political leaders which is not part of its mandate. These secret files are used for political maneuvering whenever a General grabs power. Since the military leadership abuse this institution it is unnatural to assume that the officers in the field will not try to have their own view included in the equation. It is beyond doubt that the new generation of army officers are more inclined to be religious and conservative in their lifestyles. To conduct fair and free elections it is important that the political wing of ISI should be rolled back. It is also important that the Chief of Army Staff ensure that it will focus more on fight against terrorism and prevention of external threats.

Election duties are performed by lowly paid education department and district officers. These subsistence level people are already stressed for the mere survival. It is hard to believe that these officers will jeopardize their jobs if a higher officer in the civilian and military establishment demands certain unfair actions from them during the elections. Unless election staff is fused with certain nationalist ideology it can not be expected that they will risk their livelihood as well as their life for an election result that do not matter to them much.

Elections are not an end in itself. It is a means to elect leaders that can provide law & order, institute a viable economic policy and protect the sovereignty of the nation. No political leader is presenting an ideology that will solve the social, economic and political crisis faced by the nation. Most of the leaders are looking outward by seeking help from other countries to gain political clout. It is believed that the return of Nawaz Shariff was orchestrated by the Saudi government which wants to maintain a certain clout in the future political set-up of Pakistan. It is not a secret any more that Benazir Bhutto signed a deal with Musharraf brokered by US and UK. In this environment of mistrust when leaders are not in synch with the nation, the fair and free elections can not be expected.

Foreign powers operating in Pakistan are well aware that fair and free elections might produce results that are not in their interest. They have already experienced this scenario in Algeria, Palestine, Lebanon, and Turkey where Islamic political parties gained widespread support in the elections. For these powers it is better to maintain their grip on the government through a distorted democracy resulting from election rigging rather than face the prospect of dealing with a conservative force which has people’s mandate. In a poverty stricken country it is not difficult for them to spend small amounts of money to buy people who are willing to interfere with fair elections. These foreign powers have enough networks in the country comprised of locals that executing this strategy is not too difficult.

Fair and free elections are responsibility of an independent judiciary. On November 3rd President Musharraf fatally struck at the independence of the judiciary by removing the dissenting judges. Now nation has no institution available that can work as an arbiter among political parties if they want to seek justice against unfairness in elections. On the other hand judiciary needs a strong police force that can execute its decisions. The morale and condition of the police force is so deteriorated that it can not be expected that they can with stand the pressure exerted by the establishment, military or powerful landlords.

Independent media plays a pivotal role in maintaining transparency of the electoral process. Media also plays a significant role in disseminating the message of different political parties. In last 6 years media has strengthened its role as a bridge between the rulers and the ruled. The open debates between differing political factions have contributed in education of the people about the views held by their representative. During his struggle for re-election President Musharraf has struck a serious blow at the independence of media by forcing the cable operators to pull plug on many channels. In order to continue their operations media outlets have to agree to an amended Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) ordinance which imposed many strict broadcasting conditions on the channels. In this hostile environment it can not be expected that media will be able to point finger at irregularities during the elections.

The tradition in Pakistan is such that winning party assumes that they will stay in power for ever and take revengeful actions against the losers. We have seen this play out during the two terms of Nawaz Shariff and Benazir Bhutto when both of them went after the throat of the other. When both these leaders decided to work together there was a feeling that at last there will be some decency after elections but it seems that the old tradition of revenge will be repeated. This feeling of survival of the fittest creates an environment where losing an election is sort of a death warrant. Unless this kind of hostility is defused we can not expect to create stable institutions. Our leaders have to learn to live with loss and wait for their term in the next elections.

In this environment, when there is no ideological agreement between leaders and constituents, it is hard to believe that fair elections are the solution to nation’s problem. We have to agree that the country belongs to all of us and we have to work together to build it. A stable government is one of the necessary components for a nation’s prosperity and progress. All of us whether a policeman, a teacher, a leader and a solider have to understand that any unfair actions under their watch is going to damage the nation. After that if the leaders do not accept the results we can all stand up to make it clear to them that enough is enough. Either they work together or the nation will get rid of them to make room for leaders that can work together.

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