A Decisive Moment
The ECP Must Act Now
By Sherry Rehman
Two recent developments inIslamabadstand out as significant for their public questioning of the unchecked, and therefore unnatural, hold on power by the executive inPakistan. One was more emphatic than the other, but both deserve a second glance. The fact that the Supreme Court took severe notice of the intelligence agenciesâ€™ questionable role in monitering the judges of the highest court of the land was important enough. In a country where the intelligence agencies operate as a parallel state, an actual curtailment by the Judiciary of their activities at the behest of the Executive, no matter how passing its effect may be, lent hope to all those who seek a democratic process free of manipulation. The second event came earlier, in the shape of the Chief Election Commissioner of Pakistan, taking notice of General Musharrafâ€™s campaign activities as President as inappropriate.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Clearly, in an election year, any pronouncement by officials such as the CEC are seen as important, even if they represent action that is too little, too late. Today, political parties seeking a level playing field in order to contest elections may not be able to achieve a peaceful transfer of power, given the arbitrary use of force to retain power by the regime. Yet a free and fair election is their only bid to seek a mandate from the people ofPakistan. The alternative is fraught with hazards. No matter how difficult the battle, the option of boycotting polls is always a last resort for two reasons. One, it leaves all the voters a large party mobilizes without representation. Representation is a core issue for the dispossessed and the unempowered, which is about 74 % of the population, if we use the benchmark of living under $ 2 a day as low on the empowerment pole. Two, boycotts accede hard-earned political space to forces that represent only their own interests at the expense of voters. Sponsored by security agencies to manage their elections, these reactionary forces keep re-surfacing in different political avatars and establishment groups. Â Which is why boycott remains a last-ditch option of desperate resort, but may become necessary as a collective option if no relief is given. It is incumbent therefore, that mainstream parties obtain relief from designated institutions now. If the ECP remains dormant, then the next appeal is to the superior courts, which is one option open to all responsible actors. The PPP and PML N have already embarked on that road.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â The urgency behind such intervention is all the more important because this is clearlyPakistanâ€™s defining moment, to cite an overused clichÃ©. On the one hand, the country is faced with a judicial crisis of unprecedented proportions. On the other hand, the nation is confronted with the growing challenge of social unrest fuelled by escalating poverty and inequality. Governance is poorer than before because no institution is accountable in a regime where all power flows from one gun. At the same time, the stateâ€™s ambiguous role in pampering extremism while simultaneously committing to quash militancy and terrorism no longer cuts ice as policy or propaganda. Public insecurity is high, because even the palace that pulled the coup seems to have run out of survival plans, or continues to juggle them while the country burns. Instead of an exit strategy that would bring order and restore institutional stability to the federation via free and fair elections, the press is muzzled to blank out selective reality.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â As things stand, with the exception of the 1970 elections, few polls in the country have been hailed as free and fair. But nothing has been as bad asPakistanâ€™s experience with the last two electoral exercises, both general and local. These have not only been highly controversial and divisive, but also openly questioned as anything but free and fair by several local and international electoral monitering organizations of non-partisan repute.
The 2002 General Election was in fact, rejected by reputable monitors such as the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, the European Union Election Commission and the Commonwealth Group as heavily rigged. These reports were specific in highlighting pre-poll rigging, which started with the, gerrymandering of constituencies, transfers and postings of district officials and police. The campaign of an incumbent President as well the as massive mis-use of state resources and doling out of development funds at political rallies was particularly noted as a gross violation of the Code of Conduct announced by the Election Commission of Pakistan. Reservations about the conduct of the security agencies in openly canvassing for the ruling party matched the severity of structural constraints placed by the incumbent on the manipulation of the outcome.
Not only were two elected former Prime Ministers excluded from running for election through Bhutto-and-Sharif specific changes in the Constitution, their parties were systematically battered by the Musharraf regime in an attempt to break their powerful voting pull though mis-use of state machinery and intelligence agency intrusions. New, less progressive forces were accorded space to enter the mainstream in big numbers for the first time. Despite large-scale polling-day rigging, where ballot-counts changed and ghost votes appeared on the way to the Returning Officerâ€™s premises, the PPPP still polled the largest amount of votes in the country and saw the election stolen from it through unconstitutional delays in the calling of the National Assembly and the systematic breaking of its majority in the interim period.
The Local Bodies Election 2005 went even a step further in setting new standards for state collusion in stacking the deck in favour of the ruling party,Â which enjoyed the open patronage of the Presidency, against all constitutional rules and electoral standards. Constituencies were slashed through the heart of the military regimeâ€™s opponents, elected mayors were illegally dismissed, hundreds of police and district administration transfers were made right up to within days of actual polling in complete violation of the Election Commissionâ€™s Code of Conduct, and PPPP and other opposition candidates were made to stand down through intimidation and physical harassment. In remote, rural and urban areas, women were especially targeted both as candidates or polling agents. On polling day itself, especially in Sindh, ballots were stuffed by armed gangs allied to the ruling party, where local officials and ministers themselves entered polling stations to disenfranchise voters that belonged to their rival candidates. The regimeâ€™s attempt to force upon the electorate a system of non-party Nazims or Mayors loyal only to General Musharraf divided the country on vertical sectarian, ethnic and communal fault-lines, promoting regressive politics instead of progressive political agendas for change.
All parties in the ARD monitered both electoral exercises in 2002 and 2005 with a sophisticated network of grassroots reporting mechanisms down to each National and Provincial Constituency and Union Council. In each exercise thousands of memorandums and appeals to intervene were issued to the Central and Provincial Election Commissions. On polling day, in fact, the Election Commissionâ€™s office were clogged with faxes and phone calls from the Monitering Cells run by each party. These documents recorded the voting fraud and rigging taking place in each polling station, right down to booth number, town or tehsil by specific time of day and mode of electoral manipulation in detail. Nothing happened and no one took action.
Today all ofPakistanis witness to the violation of numerous election rules and norms once again. Building on old practices mastered, the first step of the rigging process is underway with a vengeance. Instead of updating the 2002 electoral roll, new electoral rolls are being constituted without including vast swathes of the population. As a result the number of registered voters in the 2007 electoral roll has plummeted by 37 million less than the number of voters that should have been enrolled today. The earlier condition of holding new computerized National Identity Cards for registration has created havoc in rural areas where more than 60% of the population is still without outreach to computerised personal identification. Getting an NIC card must be made free of charge, but even with free IDs there is no way any candidate or party can enroll 30 million voters when NADRA could only do fifty million in five years. The opposition political parties, along with several civil society organisations, have been shouting hoarse, from pillar to post, that in all their key constituencies missing voters run into hundreds of thousands, but nothing has changed. Taking this list as final will amount to a massive disenfranchisement of voters that will render the next election hostage to charges of rank state manipulation, much like the trumped-up Referendum held by General Musharraf to elect himself President in 2000.
The time to act is now. The process has been flawed from the start. The ECP must allow the parties and candidates to cross-check the total list electronically for multiple votes, and on the ECP website, because doing so is their fundamental right as key stakeholders. The ECP must also remember it is a public-service institution with constitutionally safeguarded appointments. If a candidate or party complains, it must take the complaint seriously, and order immediate executive action. The ECP must respond urgently to the political partiesâ€™ calls to either restore the old list, better still, call a round table of all contesting parties.
Establishing credibility is not an impossible task. The Indian Election Commission did it through the cycle of one election. After that the institution never looked back, and is regarded as a model Commission even by the UN. Why mustPakistanforego this chance to reinvent its institutions? Citizens want their governments to be transparent and answerable. If a few institutions take the lead today, it can certainly kick-start a new beginning for our star-crossed nation. All it takes is a few good men and women.
Sherry Rehman is a Member of the National Assembly of Pakistan, and Central Information Secretary of the Pakistan Peoples Party. Â Â