THE LOWER court judges appointed as returning officers (ROs) by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) seem to have taken the common man by surprise. The entire exercise to weed out corrupt and bad politicians turned out to be a crazy circus lapped up eagerly by the media in search of ‘breaking news’. There was a female candidate whose husband was quizzed about how his quality of life is likely to suffer when she joined politics. The nomination papers of renowned columnist and politician Ayaz Amir were rejected for seemingly challenging the two-nation theory on which Pakistan was conceived. About a dozen politicians were sentenced to jail for one to three years for lying about their educational qualifications, including the fairly popular Jamshed Dasti and Malik Aamir Yar Waran from south Punjab.
Many political commentators were worried that the behaviour of the ROs indicated a general shift towards greater religiosity of the State and society. These ROs hoped to reject some politicians to meet the criteria laid down in Articles 62 and 63 of the 1973 Constitution, which require a member of Parliament and elected functionary of the State to be sadiq and ameen (truthful and honest). Although many trace these Articles to the reign of controversial military dictator Zia-ul-Haq, these Articles have their origins in the second amendment to the 1973 Constitution introduced by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. This particular Article emphasised that functionaries abide by certain Islamic norms.
Yet all of this came as a surprise because never before had the ROs demanded candidates to be truthful and honest, or asked them irrelevant questions like narrating verses from the Quran, or questioned them about their basic knowledge of religion and Pakistan’s history. There were a lot of stories from Sindh, the home province of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), about candidates not being able to answer certain basic questions. But it is also a part of the country where educational standards are more dismal than in most other segments, with the exception of Balochistan.
Perhaps, the surprise was because there were no specific instructions from the ECP to the ROS to ask such questions. Nor did the United Nations Development Programme’s training module for the ROs prepare them for such a line of questioning. When I spoke with a responsible source close to Chief Election Commissioner Justice (retd) Fakhruddin G Ebrahim about the chaos, the source replied that the ECP was not involved in this and the decisions would possibly get overturned. The source sounded confused and frustrated, and also assured me that the ECP had nothing to do with it. The instructions, if there were any, were provided to the ROs by the superior judiciary. The Chief Justice, in fact, subsequently wrote a letter to the ROs appreciating their stellar performance.
Some of the decisions such as the disqualification of Amir and Dasti, which had infuriated many people, were eventually overturned. However, similar instances such as the fake degree cases of Waran and former prime minister Raja Pervez Ashraf still hang in the balance.
Such behaviour indicates three things. First, that the judiciary keenly observes and responds to what is highlighted in the media. Second, some of the key decisions were changed to bring some legitimacy to the screening process, which had almost been lost due to certain questionable decisions. Third, this indicates another form of pre-poll rigging in which justice is done selectively. For instance, Waran’s degree is as fake as Dasti’s and vice versa. Nonetheless, while the latter’s was cleared by the court, the former’s is not and so he is hiding as a proclaimed offender who will be put in jail. Did the higher court do this because Dasti is presented as representing the interests of the common man or the middle class, or is it because Dasti distanced himself from the PPP as opposed to Waran? Sources say he may get cleared, but that fact that he had to go into hiding has cost him campaign time.
In any case, the fake degree issue pertains to an unfair pre-condition imposed by a military dictator through a presidential ordinance. Gen (retd) Parvez Musharraf had demanded all election candidates to have a minimum qualification of bachelor’s degree. The condition was used to manipulate many of the subsequently elected members as quite a few had submitted fake degrees.
The entire exercise borders on farce and, hence, indicates an effort to further depoliticise the society. As I travelled around Sindh and Punjab and spoke with ordinary people, they were sceptical of a process that, in the end, did not really eliminate the bad and the ugly. An educationist from Shikarpur, Sindh, complained that had the process been conducted fairly, not a single candidate [including some of the bigwigs from Imran ‘Mr Clean’ Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek -e- Insaf (PTI)] would have passed the test, especially if it came to proving their source of income or matching assets with the amount of tax they paid.
FURTHERMORE, THE entire process does look ridiculous when we see that while people were rejected for not reciting some verses, dictators such as Musharraf were initially cleared (but later rejected) from two seats despite having committed an act of treason by dishonouring the Constitution in 1999 when he imposed the fourth military rule. Many have seriously begun to suspect that the superior courts are as influenced by Saudi Arabia and the army as Nawaz Sharif, who did not raise a hue and cry after Musharraf’s return from self-exile. The theory about GHQ Rawalpindi’s involvement begins to sound more real when one overhears relatives of senior military spooks declaring in private conversations that Musharraf had not done anything wrong in sacking the elected government then.
The army’s idea, as many in India hope to believe, is not necessarily to get the retired general back in the business of power but to create greater confusion about the entire electoral process. Many believe that Musharraf’s real worth for the army is to embarrass Sharif who seems to have more of a chance to form the next government. He seems to have picked up steam against the PTI, his party’s key rival in Punjab; and is in the process of making alignments in Sindh against the PPP. However, a strong coalition headed by the PML-N is not in the army’s interest. The relationship between Sharif and the army may be one of the issues but the other and more important concern is not to have a strong coalition that may take the negotiations in Afghanistan after the US withdrawal in a direction that the army does not want to follow. A strong and confident government is a possible reminder of the Geneva Accords signed by the Mohammad Khan Junejo government in 1987. The agreement had made Zia-ul-Haq and his military unhappy. The GHQ probably does not want the mistake repeated at the time of withdrawal of another superpower from the South Asian region.
Thus far, it is generally believed that any single party may not sweep the polls. Despite the fact that Imran Khan seems to have raised the spectre of right ideology, these polls are a game of strategy and numbers. Some patterns have already emerged, like the PML-N making considerable gains in Punjab, but it is being challenged in north Punjab and might possibly lose some seats to the PTI in central Punjab. The PPP will maintain its position in Sindh but will be weakened further in Punjab. The ethnic parties like the MQM will retain their position in Sindh Urban while ANP could lose very badly in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. The role of the judiciary or any act of manipulation before the election, thus, is critical in determining the future of all parties involved in the electoral process.
Nonetheless, what is most certain about the polls is that these may not turn out to be the kind of change that one hears about, especially in reference to demographic changes and youth. A metamorphosis seems a long way away.
Siddiqa is an Islamabad-based columnist and the author of Military Inc