process
Monitoring factor
A significant media presence, civil society activism and the presence of local and international observers delimited the amount of rigging
By Nadeem Iqbal
There is no doubt that the elections were rigged and the results manipulated. But the magnitude of rigging was limited; therefore, it could not affect the outcome of the elections with the opposition parties securing their win. No wonder the elections observers conclude that the election environment on Feb 18, 2008, provided a genuine opportunity for Pakistani voters to express their will.

Militant help
In North Waziristan, the government sought the help of the militants to conduct peaceful polls
By Mushtaq Yusufzai
The Taliban in North Waziristan tribal agency facilitated the Feb 18 polling, where the tribespeople, unlike the rest of the tribal regions, evinced a keen interest in exercising their right to vote.
Almost a day earlier, in the militants-dominated North Waziristan Agency, the government had struck another peace deal with militants with the hope of restoring peace to the militancy-stricken tribal region.

Taal Matol
This and that!
By Shoaib Hashmi
I am writing this on Saturday the 16th and in two days, on the 18th, all of us, or at any rate some of us, will trot out and do out bits to determine the immediate future for ourselves. And there was a great temptation to make a prediction and the hell with the consequences. After all everyone else is doing it especially the politicians who know damn all about what the people are thinking. But then they have an easy job because all the predictions are self-serving threats and invective. So I have decided not to and instead keep you going with this and that.

viewpoint
'All actions of Nov 3 require validation by the parliament'
The Attorney General Malik Muhammad Qayyum had claimed that the post Nov 3 amendments did not need any parliamentary ratification. Advocate Salman Akram Raja rejects the assertion as the first session of the new parliament is all set to be called in a few days. The Attorney General was not available for an interview
By Shahzada Irfan Ahmed
The News on Sunday: How do you respond to the attorney general's claim that the post Nov 3 amendments do not need constitutional ratification?

From home to House
More women have made it to the parliament than ever before
By Naila Inayat
Gone are the days when the women lot was considered an outcast in politics. The success of more than 15 women on general seats in the Feb 18 general elections has certainly nullified the notion. Since 1970, women leaders have slowly but surely gained strength. Here's a lowdown on those women participants who won in adverse circumstances and sometimes close contests.

There is no doubt that the elections were rigged and the results manipulated. But the magnitude of rigging was limited; therefore, it could not affect the outcome of the elections with the opposition parties securing their win. No wonder the elections observers conclude that the election environment on Feb 18, 2008, provided a genuine opportunity for Pakistani voters to express their will.

An official closely associated with the election monitoring cell told TNS that the observers used the single yardstick of acceptability of election results by all the major players. Therefore, they declared the elections as free and fair.

The factors that contributed towards keeping a possible misuse in control include media presence across the country; civil society activism that motivated the people to vote; the interest of the international community in these elections and the clear instructions of the political parties to their polling agents that they should not leave the polling stations until they get the results.

There was no exact figure of the number of international observers. The government says that roughly they were over 1,000 in number and included journalists. There were two American Congress delegations also, together with a 38-member delegation of Democracy International, an US based organisation.

Although the American interest in Pakistani elections revolved around the international war on terrorism, it was basically due to the fact that the US government had financed multiple electoral reforms in Pakistan.

According to a US state department spokesperson, the US is providing approximately $3.2 million in election observing programmes. The US Agency for International Development is providing $700,000 to the Asia Foundation and $991,468 to Democracy International for observer missions. The Department of State is providing $1.5 million to The Asia Foundation as well.

Therefore, the US wanted to send an observers' mission to monitor the electoral process. Two American organisations, namely NDI and IRI, withdrew from Pakistan after conducting pre-poll assessments and exit surveys because of security concerns making the US government desperate to send in some other organisation that could undertake the observation part.

A report in Washington Post, on Feb 16, 2008, said that the Bush administration officials had started to scramble late last month in order to find a US monitoring group that would be willing to travel to Pakistan and observe the polls.

"Finally, someone said yes. The State Department and Democracy International signed the contract, worth nearly $1 million, on Feb 8, only 10 days before the vote. The agreement came "close to the eleventh hour," said Mark S. Ward, USAID's acting assistant administrator for Asia and the Near East, in an interview," the newspaper added.

Quoting analysts, it further said, "The frantic effort to mobilise Americans to observe Pakistan's election -- a vote that will determine the political fate of a nuclear-armed power on the front line of the fight against terrorism and Islamic extremism -- underscores the Bush administration's bid to boost President Musharraf as a longtime ally, by ensuring that the election is seen as credible."

Democracy International, in its preliminary statement, said: "The balloting and counting processes on election day were largely conducted in accordance with the established procedures. The election day process was executed smoothly in observed polling stations relative to previous Pakistani elections. Despite the relative success of election day, the delegation noted some significant systemic problems, including inaccurate voter lists, limited voter turnout and low participation of women. In addition, observers noted procedural irregularities that should be resolved to improve the overall process."

However, the need for long-term electoral reforms will be suggested in the observers' detailed reports.

Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN), a coalition of forty leading Pakistani civil society organisations of which thirty were involved in the election observation process, in its preliminary report released soon after the elections said: "General Elections 2008 have been the most closely watched ever in Pakistan's history. Several observers and commentators have already expressed their satisfaction with the administration of the polls of election day."

"However", the initial report added, "FAFEN believes that the election day is only a small part of the overall electoral process. It urges all citizens of Pakistan as well as the international community to remain vigilant about the remaining parts of the process before reaching conclusions. This includes the announcement and acceptance of election results as well as the resolution of electoral complaints and petitions. FAFEN also urges all stakeholders, including the international donor community, to stay focused on the longer-term electoral and governance reform issues that need sustained attention in the months and years ahead."

The EU Election Observation Mission (EU EOM) observers' findings were not different. It said: "There is a lack of confidence in the independence of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) among election stakeholders. Technical preparations saw some improvement and were generally undertaken efficiently and on time. Nonetheless, problematic issues identified during the 2002 elections have not been sufficiently addressed. The ECP lacks transparency in some areas of its workings and has not taken sufficient responsibility for key aspects of the process which should be under its control, including supervising the work of returning officers, enforcing the Code of Conduct for Parties and Candidates, staff training and voter education."

The EU EOM deployed 131 observers from 23 EU member states, Norway and Canada. The observers were deployed throughout Pakistan covering 65 per cent of constituencies to observe and assess the different stages of the electoral process in accordance with international standards for elections. Over the election day period, the EU EOM was joined by a seven member delegation from the European Parliament, led by Robert Evans MEP, which endorses this preliminary statement. On Election Day, observers visited 445 polling stations in 115 constituencies to observe voting, counting and the compilation of results.

A final report containing the EU EOM's overall assessment and detailed recommendations for the future will be published two months after the completion of the election process.

FAFEN that has been operational since 2006, built its observers team to 20,000 spread all over the country. However around 1000 of its observers could not get the accreditation cards from the election commission therefore they were unable to enter into the polling stations.

"The task of accrediting national election observers has been outsourced by the ECP to District and Session Judges who are called DROs while they fulfill their election duties. The ECP apparently has little or no control to enforce instructions to these judges.If the ECP cannot implement a uniform national election procedure like accreditation of national observers at the district level, this does not bode well for other aspects of the election process. ROs and DROs are responsible for other very important parts of the election process -- such as finalising the list of polling stations, enforcing the Election Code of Conduct, compiling election results, and resolving election complaints and petitions. But the DROs and ROs evidently have the power to ignore ECP instructions and apply their own procedures on a district-by-district basis."

About the Violations of election rules by political parties, it says that: "There appears to be a little check by political parties on their candidates for the adherence to the Code of Conduct for Political Parties and Contesting candidates. Almost all sections of the Code were violated by candidates from the contesting parties. This has an implication on the election process in multiple ways: burdening of an already dysfunctional election complaints handling mechanism, breach of expense limits, frictions among electoral contestants leading to violence and painting of political parties in negative image for breaching writ of the law that they promise to enforce."

FAFEN will be releasing its final report by the end of March.


Militant help

By Mushtaq Yusufzai

The Taliban in North Waziristan tribal agency facilitated the Feb 18 polling, where the tribespeople, unlike the rest of the tribal regions, evinced a keen interest in exercising their right to vote.

Almost a day earlier, in the militants-dominated North Waziristan Agency, the government had struck another peace deal with militants with the hope of restoring peace to the militancy-stricken tribal region.

In the peace deal, the government and tribal militants, who prefer to be called Taliban, had pledged to work together in future for maintenance of peace and resolving disputes.

The militants, on Dec 17, 2007, had announced a unilateral ceasefire and then extended it almost five times when the government reciprocated accordingly.

A senior militant commander on condition of anonymity said that the peace truce was signed in the grand 'jirga' where the militant commanders, tribal elders as well as government officials were present. He said that it was almost the same agreement which had been signed on Sep 5, 2006, between them and the government.

The government had almost made up its mind to reschedule polls in the adjacent North Waziristan after postponing the election on NA-42 in South Waziristan due to the mass migration of the Mahsud tribespeople to distant Tank, Dera Ismail Khan and other parts of the country as a result of clashes between security forces and Baitullah Mahsud-led militants.

Later, the government announced to conduct elections in North Waziristan but declared all the polling stations there the 'most sensitive' ones and suggested extraordinary security measures for holding free and fair polls.

Keeping in view the security concerns in the region, the government sought the help of the militants in conducting the election in a peaceful manner.

A senior government official said that the task was given to the Taliban after the paramilitary Frontier Corps (FC) and Khasadar force or tribal police personnel expressed their reluctance to provide security to the polling staff deputed in the remote and the most sensitive areas.

Tribespeople from parts of North Waziristan told TNS that not a single security personnel was sighted in almost all the 10 subdivisions of the volatile tribal region, including Miramshah, Mirali, Shawal, Data Khel, Ghulam Khan, Spinwam, Shawa, Dosali, Razmak and Garyum in the election day. Residents in Miramshah, North Waziristan's regional headquarters, said that militants were the ones who conducted the polls and provided security to the voters.

People felt it was primarily that reason, the presence of Taliban, which encouraged the already terrified tribesmen to come out of their homes and cast their votes.

"It seemed more like jubilation here. The people enthusiastically participated in elections and there were no signs of fear as the well-armed militants were deployed everywhere in and outside the polling stations," said Mohammad Salimullah, a tribesman while talking to the TNS by telephone from Miramshah.

The residents said that they felt a threat from the militants before the elections, but when learnt that they themselves were part of the game then everyone came to the polling station.

"It was the day of the militants and they proved themselves more capable than those who were supposed to do the job," said Haji Gul Halim, a resident of Dande Darpakhel town, near Miramshah.

During the polling, witnesses said, heavily armed militants were seen patrolling the streets and thoroughly searching voters before entering the polling stations.

"In some of the polling stations, militants, even briefly detained people for allegedly violating the Taliban's code of conduct which they had set for the election," said Mohammad Rahman in Mirali town, the second biggest town of the agency.

He, however, added that the Taliban were later seen releasing the detainees and giving them advice to help the people elected a sincere and pious representative.

Interestingly, when the polls finished, militants informed the local political authorities that their job was finished and that they should collect the ballot boxes.

"The ballot boxes were then taken in armoured personnel carriers (APCs) to Miramshah and the name of the successful candidate was announced," said a government official, but wished not to be named.

16 candidates were contesting the election for the lone National Assembly seat of North Waziristan Agency (NA-40).

Except for a few, like PML-Q's Ajmal Khan, who served as federal minister in the past, and an independent candidate Abdul Qayyum, the majority of the contestants belonged to Maulana Fazlur Rahman's Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI-F), but only Maulana Nek Zaman, a former pro-MMA MNA from North Waziristan, was JUI-F nominee on NA-40.

The remaining candidates, including Aurangzeb, Haji Kamran Khan, Fazal Subhan, Mufti Sadeequllah and Nisar Ali were JUI-F dissidents and decided to contest when the party refused their nomination for the election.

Some of them are considered to be very close to the militants, including Abdullah Shah, who belongs to a banned outfit Al-Rashid Trust, Haji Kamran Khan and a few others.

Now some of the losing candidates had started raising questions over this unique trend of involving militants to hold elections.

They have accused the government of allowing militants to help elect their blue-eyed candidate, Haji Kamran Khan in the polls.

They said that the militants organised a huge rally in support of the winning candidate and fired shots in the air when Kamran Khan was declared the winner.

 


Taal Matol
This and that!

I am writing this on Saturday the 16th and in two days, on the 18th, all of us, or at any rate some of us, will trot out and do out bits to determine the immediate future for ourselves. And there was a great temptation to make a prediction and the hell with the consequences. After all everyone else is doing it especially the politicians who know damn all about what the people are thinking. But then they have an easy job because all the predictions are self-serving threats and invective. So I have decided not to and instead keep you going with this and that.

Bhola was a student much favoured by practically everyone on the staff He was a lousy student but a darn good sportsman; a bit of a rogue but a helpful one. He was about to pass out so he went to his tutor for a testimonial and the tutor wrote him a pretty nice one. Bhola had it typed -- I think he really couldn't read what he called enjoining handwriting -- and he came back in tears, "Sirjee what have you done? I thought you liked me! You have written that I am an 'outstanding' player of field hockey, but I have been playing Inside the team for four years." (Main tay team day Andar khedda reha waan).

I guess in a way he was right. Even today in the British High Courts, as the judge enters the usher advises those present to be 'upstanding in the court.' Which is old fashioned but better than, 'Get off your butts.' And there is a pharmaceutical company called Upjohn whose medicines do not necessarily live up to their name. I was customary, in writing letters of recommendation, to be slightly old fashioned, and to use a few known phrases.

Fortunately in the olden days there were fewer of these to be remembered. The town of Newcastle was known for its coal mines, so the height of folly was easily described as 'Carrying coals to Newcastle.' The local equivalent was the town of Bareilly which was famous for its bamboos, hence 'Ultay bans Barielly ko.' And the town of Paris, France was also famous for many things!

King George the Fifth had a foreign minister by the name of Hoares which is pronounced exactly the way you suspect it is. He was sent to Paris to negotiate the terms of some settlement and swayed perhaps by the charms of Paris conceded a few more concessions than the king thought wise. The king's reaction was terse and telling," No more coals to Newcastle and no more Hoares to Paris."

If you ever land up in the salt mines of Khewra, or in any respectable cave system somewhere, you will almost certainly come across Stalagmites and Stalactites. Water containing salts or minerals drips down from the roof, and the salts left over after it evaporates form pillars at both top and bottom ends. Some hang down from the roof and are called stalagmites, and the other ones are called the other thing; and many people have trouble remembering which is which. But I don't.

And now if you are done being impressed with the precision of my sharp memory, I will tell you the secret to let you sleep easy at night. It is all in the old phrase 'Ants in the Pants.' The 'Mites' go up and the 'Tights' go down, so there!


viewpoint
'All actions of Nov 3 require validation by the parliament'

The News on Sunday: How do you respond to the attorney general's claim that the post Nov 3 amendments do not need constitutional ratification?

Salman Akram Raja: What the attorney general is saying is without any legal justification. The Constitution is a document that has a procedure laid out for its own amendment. That's the only way the Constitution can be amended. If somebody stands up and says I have amended the Constitution, it's nonsense. It's just words spoken in the air. The Constitution cannot be amended by saying that I've amended it. What happened on the 3rd of Nov was that the army chief declared a martial law. Now what is a declaration of martial law? It's simply the declaration of an intent not to obey the Constitution. It's not a constitutionally or legally recognised event. All it means is that you are saying that I will not obey and then you proceed to disobey. When the army chief embarks upon this period of disobedience, the term given to it is martial law but it is simply a period of disobedience.

During this period of disobedience whatever he does -- he proceeds to run the country in violation of the Constitution -- is his act of disobedience or if you like treason. When a court is called upon to validate this act of disobedience or treason, what is the court basing its act of validation on? A court, that functions in terms of the Constitution, can only apply the constitution itself or some other law that is available to it to apply. So when a court says we have validated or we hereby declare that this act of disobedience or treason is in some sense 'lawful' it is not basing this assertion on any recognised standard of legality. It is again a statement made by a bunch of people who are sitting in a room and describe themselves as a court, especially when they have been appointed in a manner not recognised by the Constitution.

TNS: Isn't that circular?

SAR: Exactly. So you declare disobedience, then you carry out that disobedience by restraining the lawfully appointed judges from performing their functions. You declare somebody a judge and say here is a judge who will grant my act a validation.

Validation or legitimisation is always according to a pre-existing legal standard. In the case of the so-called validation of the acts of Nov 3, no pre-existing standard was relied upon. So disobedience took place and in carrying out that act of disobedience a bunch of judges was appointed and declared to be the Supreme Court of Pakistan.

The existing judges were not removed in a manner recognised by the Constitution. Article 209 was never followed. So those judges continue to be the lawful judges of the superior courts of the country. They have only been physically restrained. So an order was passed, again by the army chief, called the Judges (Oath of Office) Order 2007 which said that any person who is not offered oath or does not take oath under the PCO will cease to be a judge. This is not something that the Constitution envisages. This order, like the PCO, is not a law. It is just the statement of the army chief. These people have been purportedly removed, and this removal has been 'validated' by this 'Supreme Court.'

Each time a martial law has been declared in Pakistan, the martial law dictator has had the good grace and the shame to acknowledge that what he had done was illegal and needed the validation of parliament. Gen Zia did that in 1985 and proceeded to have the eighth amendment passed by the assembly. Similarly Gen Musharraf himself in 2002 had proceeded to get the seventeenth amendment passed. Never before has any dictator even dared to suggest that what they did in a period of constitutional deviation or disobedience could becomes its own justification.

So it is only through recognition by the parliament of those actions and the passage of an amendment act which incorporates those actions into the Constitution by way of an amendment that those actions acquire constitutional validity.

To say that this time around we will not place these actions before the parliament is completely shameless. It reflects the degradation of the morality of martial laws, if there is such a thing.

As far as the legality of the issue is concerned nothing happened on the 3rd of November that deserves legal recognition. All that happened was constitutional disobedience effected through physical not legal force. Once disobedience ceases the normal legal process should take its course and those responsible for the constitutional disobedience should be punished unless they have placed themselves before parliament and it has ratified their actions. That is the only way for them to be absolved of their act of constitutional disobedience.

TNS: What must the parliament do now?

SAR: All actions that have been taken purportedly on the basis of the PCO of Nov 3 require validation and they should be placed before parliament.

Now what should happen, to my mind, is that once the new government has taken over -- and that is critical, the new government must take over -- and once there is a law minister, a parliamentary affairs minister, a law secretary and a new attorney general and so on, they should move a bill before the National Assembly, asking it to either validate through a constitutional amendment the actions of Nov 3, the PCO and the actions pursuant thereto or to reject these actions. This would be Constitutional Amendment Bill and it will be within the powers of the National Assembly to reject that bill with a simple majority. Once the National Assembly rejects that bill through a simple majority, then the rejection will be a notice or a proclamation to all that the actions of Nov 3 till the 15th of Dec (as well as the illegal actions were carried out subsequently like the continued incarceration of Aitzaz Ahsan and the Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry) were and remain illegal.

TNS: And they don't need two thirds majority?

SAR: No, you need two thirds majority in order to pass something, to reject you don't. To my mind, they should present a bill and reject it. It will be a proclamation to all that legitimacy has not been granted to Nov 3 acts and thereafter, and that will be the end of it.

TNS: Will the judges then stand restored?

SAR: They already are judges. They just have to be physically placed in their chambers because, remember, they were physically removed. They were not legally removed. Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and others were caught hold of by their arms, thrown into vehicles, and locked up in their houses. So they just need to be unlocked, brought back to the courts and made to sit in the courtrooms and carry on. Once the National Assembly says that it recognises them as the lawful judges, one pillar of the state would have made a clear declaration of where it stands. So if you think of the state in terms of its three pillars, the judiciary, the executive and the legislature, this will be clear announcement by the legislature of which Supreme Court the legislature is going to obey and recognise as the lawful Supreme Court. Once that happens, the executive may then proceed, through a cabinet resolution, to recognise the Supreme Court and the Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry as the lawful incumbent. So you will then have two pillars of the state recognising the third pillar, but only that part of the third pillar that existed before Nov 3. There will be a satisfying consistency, the three pillars recongnising each other as legitimate.

TNS: When the National Assembly rejects the Constitution Amendment Bill as you say, isn't it implicitly recognising the existence of a coup-maker. What then becomes of the coup-maker?

SAR: The natural consequences should follow. Or maybe the coup-maker can seek mercy or some kind of reprieve separately. The coup-maker's own liability and the consequences  that should attend the actions of the coup-maker can possibly be separated. One could say that we do not legitimise your actions, but one could theoretically forgive the coup-maker.

TNS: How do you think will the president try to resist such moves by the National Assembly?

SAR: He cannot unless the army chief were to aid him. The president has no executive authority. The only rival coercive force to the police force is the force that the army chief controls. So will the army chief send troops to stop the police force from taking the chief justice to the Supreme Court premises? I hope not. It's either the prime minister or the army chief that ultimately control the coercive arms of the state.

TNS: What about the judges who did take oath under the PCO?

SAR: Actually the PCO judges, by taking oath under the PCO, committed an illegality; they violated their existing oaths. This presumably is misconduct. So it would be for the chief justice to decide what to do; he could move references against these judges to the Supreme Judicial Council or not. It's in his discretion. But the judges who took oath under the PCO were subsequently, after Dec 15, also made to take oath under the Constitution. Now the question would arise whether their fresh oath, under the Constitution after Dec 15, has in some sense wiped away their illegal oath under the PCO. There were some judges who took oath just one day before the so-called Emergency was lifted. This was done, it would appear, in order to ensure that their birth as judge is also tainted.

So this episode was not only unconstitutional and illegal but also cruel, a deliberate attempt to humiliate the institution of the judiciary and the individual judges involved.

It is the outcome of a mindset that feels that the judiciary and the judges need to be put in their place.

By Naila Inayat

Gone are the days when the women lot was considered an outcast in politics. The success of more than 15 women on general seats in the Feb 18 general elections has certainly nullified the notion. Since 1970, women leaders have slowly but surely gained strength. Here's a lowdown on those women participants who won in adverse circumstances and sometimes close contests.

When Pakistan saw its first general election in the year 1970, only nine women contested for the NA but could not win any seats. These included Shireen Wahab, Nargis Naeem, Nasim Jahan Begum, Zahida Sultan, Dr Ashraf Khatoon and Jehanzeba Musa. Ms Musa, an Irish woman, waged a vocal battle for Balochistan's rights against Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

Seven years later, in 1977, only Begum Nasim Abdul Wali Khan contested the polls in NWFP and also won.

In the 'party-less elections' held under Gen Zia ul Haq in '85, Syeda Abida Hussain was the only one to have won out of the 15 women who participated. 

In the 1988 elections, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, her mother Begum Nusrat Bhutto, Syeda Abida Hussain and Begum Nasim Majid won a seat each.

The 1990 general elections saw only two women out of 13 candidates winning their seats. This time, too, only the Bhuttos (Begum Nusrat Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto) made it to the National Assembly.

In 1993, only four women, again, including the two Bhuttos -- Shahnaz Javed and Tehmina Daultana -- won the elections, out of a total of 16 who contested.

Begum Nusrat Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto, Dr Fehmida Mirza, Syeda Abida Hussain, Khurshid Mehmood Khan, widow of Mehmood Akbar, Begum Majida Wyne and Tehmina Daultana were the six women -- out of 34 -- who were victorious in the 1997 elections.

In the 2002 polls, 13 women were elected on non-reserved, open seats in the 342-seat National Assembly -- nine from Punjab, three from Sindh, and one from Balochistan. They included Sumera Malik, Ghulam Bibi Bharwana, Saima Akhtar Bharwana, Samina Khalid Ghurki, Rubina Shaheen Wattoo, Hina Rabbani Khar, Dr Azra Fazal Pechuho, Dr Fehmida Mirza and Zubaida Jalal.

The recently held (Feb 2008) elections saw more than 15 women (till the filing of this story) in the national assembly. They include Saima Akhtar Bharwana, Farkhanda Amjad Warraich, Saira Afzal Tarar, Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan, Tehmina Daultana, Aseem Daultana, Hina Rabbani Khar, Khush Bakhat Shujaat, Sumaira Naz, Ghulam Bibi Bharwana, Dr Azra Fazal Pecheho, Shamshad Sattar Bachani, Rahila Parveen, Farkhanda Amjad Warraich, Sumaira Malik and Tehmina Daultana.

 

By Omar R. Quraishi

The Feb 18 election was historic. Many people may disagree - which is an old habit of many an arm-chair self-professed intellectual/critic -- and say that they have simply brought back to power the same old gang of crooks. That may, depending on your vantage point and political inclination, be partially true to some extent, but this kind of thinking

is simplistic on several counts.

First, was the gang of 'crooks' who formed the previous government any better? Second, what about the military establishment and its grip on power for more or less much of the country's history? What about the fact that for the better part of the country's history it has appropriate to itself a disproportionately large chunk of the budget year after year and apart from tax-payers money it has directly benefited immensely from foreign aid inflows.

Take for instance the issue of the massive aid received from the US by Pakistan as part of the war against terror. The amount so far is in the region of $10 billion and 90 per cent of it in the form of military aid. Out of that a major chunk consists of services that Islamabad provides Washington for logistics, supplying fuel and so on to its troops in Afghanistan. Only a tenth -- a billion -- has been in the form of socio-economic assistance.

Even without all this American money, the military has become a prominent player in the country's business and commercial sector from involving itself in real estate, land development, banking, security services, transportation and logistics to even mineral water and cereals. While the current army chief's directive to repatriate all  army officers from civilian postings back to their parent departments in the military is good, it is unlikely to affect in any real way the military's burgeoning corporatisation.

Ordinary Pakistanis were completely being left out of this -- while  their taxes paid to fund the lavish lifestyles of generals, bureaucrats, ministers and their lackeys, they had no or little say in any policy or decision-making. The government eventually came to be seen as not only extravagant and at times corrupt but highly insensitive to the plight of ordinary Pakistanis.

There was the sugar price fixing scandal, which benefited a handful of sugar mill-owners (including some ruling party politicians who lost on Feb. 18) at the expense of millions of low-income Pakistanis. There also was the oil price-fixing scandal where it came to light that the government had all but abdicated its responsibility to fix the price of petrol in the country by allowing the oil marketing companies and refineries to set prices! That this was unprecedented and surely amounted to official sanction of a cartel was lost on the government.

There was also the Lal Masjid issue where many Pakistanis felt that the government dilly-dallied too much on the matter and allowed the issue to basically snow-ball instead of nipping it in the bud.

Maulana Fazlullah and what happened in his native Swat is another example of this and showed the government's total lack of spine in dealing with the rising monster of extremism and Talibanisation in the country. In the former case, groups of vigilante 'students' went around the federal capital forcibly closing down shops while in the latter case the maulana passed a fatwa decreeing that vaccinating one's child against polio was against the dictates of Islam!

Instead of coming down hard on Fazlullah and winding up his poisonous FM radio stations and prosecuting him for rising against the government and sabotaging its vaccination campaign, concessions were given to him. He was actually allowed to keep his radio stations if he reversed his fatwa -- which he was obviously only too happy to do. The appeasement did not end there -- in an effort to divide his support, his father-in-law and the head of the Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi, Maulana Soofi Mohammad, was taken out of jail and kept in a hospital in Peshawar in  an effort by the government to lure him to its side. It was only much later, after the militants, including reportedly many foreigners, began overrunning security checkposts and police stations in parts of Swat, that a military operation was launched. The end result was a military victory for the state but at the cost of at least 200 lives and the local economy all but destroyed.

In more recent times, ordinary Pakistanis had to come to terms with a biting flour shortage and having to shell out seven to ten rupees for a nan/roti. Again the reason was that despite a good wheat crop, government mismanagement, inefficiency and perhaps even tacit approval or outright collusion, a shortage ensued because of the price differential between the price of flour at home and in Afghanistan (where it is considerably higher) and because hoarders were allowed to have a field day and artificially raise the price of atta. The solution was again a case of too little too late -- a committee was formed headed by a recently-retired general and it set out to undo what it could not because the crisis was now entrenched and the only way was to import wheat. Indeed, that was done, and several hundred millions dollars -- of taxpayers' money, who else? -- was spent in importing to bridge the shortage. Instead of admitting its mistakes and pledging to look out for the interests of ordinary Pakistanis, the government took credit for the import of the wheat -- as if! -- and proceeded to claim that the problem had been dealt with. There was, or rather is, also the ongoing gas shortage and the electricity crisis -- which is chronic and has arisen mainly because there has been no addition -- at all -- to the country's generating capacity since 1999 and because power utility companies have done an abysmal job in checking electricity theft.

Keeping all these issues in mind, the vote of Feb 18 is historic in that the people have spoken -- they have spoken out in favour of peace, democracy and against the policies of the president, especially the blunders his administration made in 2007, particularly from March 9 onwards. The people have spoken against the military's involvement in politics, against one-man dictatorship and against the mangling of the Constitution simply to sustain a single individual in power. They have spoken out against placing curbs on civil society and the media.

Equally, if not more importantly, they have also spoken loudly against extremism and intolerance in society by not routing the MMA and voting in the ANP in NWFP. This should tell a thing or two to the obscurantists -- namely that shoving a particular (and very rigid and inflexible) interpretation of faith a la Taliban down people's throat is not going to make them very popular. Also, people don't like it when governments align themselves too closely with extremists and local militants and tolerate them openly (true for the federal as well as the former NWFP government of Akram Durrani).

Overall, democracy is the real winner because the Feb 18 proves the naysayers, the collaborators and the democracy-haters and autocracy-military lovers wrong. Their whole argument -- couched mainly in a highly offensive and patronizing framework -- that the 'people of Pakistan' don't really know what's right for them because they are not all that educated, and hence they need to told what is good for them, has been blown to smithereens by the election results. Given half a chance, ordinary Pakistanis know what is right and wrong for them and are able to exercise their right to vote in a manner that reflects the conscious decision-making that goes in making such choices. Let's now hope that those who have won the election realise all this and come good on all their promises and do not throw away the mandate given to them by the people of Pakistan.

 

The writer is Op-ed Pages Editor of The News.

Email: [email protected]

 

 

 


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