May issue 2002

By | News & Politics | Published 22 years ago

Although various independent Gallup surveys ahead of the referendum indicated a decline in General Musharraf’s popularity graph, and all national and international media organisations as well as independent observers reported a lacklustre turnout in the referendum, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) nevertheless reported the turnout to be as high as 71 per cent. According to the official figures released by the ECP, some 97.5 per cent of people gave a verdict in favour of General Musharraf, while a mere 2.5 per cent rejected his candidature. “What people cannot do, can always be achieved through ‘angels.’ Let’s accept reality and say, ‘farishtay zindaabad ‘ (long live the angels),” was the response of an incredulous journalist when he heard the final results.

As per the 1998 census, there were then 61.2 million people 18 years of age and above in the country, a number estimated to have increased to 61.9 million at present. A total of 87,074 polling stations and 163,641 additional polling booths were set up across the country and 414,356 public sector employees appointed to carry out electoral duties on polling day. The entire country was designated one constituency and all citizens aged 18 and above were deemed eligible to vote by establishing their identity through any reasonable means. “A total of 43,907,950 votes were polled, out of which 42,804,030 were in the affirmative, while the rest — 833,676 — said ‘no’. These numbers translate into a 71 per cent voter turnout — the highest in the history of Pakistan,” announced Chief Election Commissioner, Justice (Retd) Irshad Hasan Khan.

Although General Musharraf’s victory was a foregone conclusion, the entire exercise had been designed to ensure that the turnout would be large enough to put the desperately-sought seal of legitimacy on his office. To this end, the government resorted to every possible gimmick in the book; from hobnobbing with corrupt and criminal political elements in the country and holding public meetings at state expense to placing the entire state machinery at the disposal of a few individuals in order to guarantee him a thumping majority. As if this were not enough, the voting age was reduced to 18 years for the referendum and then, in one cavalier stroke, the precondition of confirming voters’ eligibility through national identity cards and electoral lists was also waived. Last, but not least, hundreds and thousands of nazims and councillors were threatened with withdrawal of government support if they did not muster support for the referendum within their constituencies.

Employing logic remarkably similar to US President George Bush’s ‘you are either with us or with the terrorists’ rhetoric, General Musharraf launched his referendum campaign by drawing unambiguous battle lines between himself and his opponents. “We have to draw a clear line from today and see who is supporting our reforms and who is against our policies,” he announced at his first public meeting in Lahore to which, according to credible reports, thousands of public sector employees had been forcibly bussed.

It is little wonder that the last one month, ever since preparations for the referendum got underway, has seen a certain disillusionment set in among the public. General Musharraf’s popularity on the domestic front had seen an exponential increase in the aftermath of the events of October 12, 1999, when, in his characteristically forthright manner, he pledged “to set the system right” and bring in “real democracy at the grass- roots level.” A majority of the population, the segment he termed the ‘silent majority,’ again rallied around him post 9/11 when he chose to ally himself with the so-called international coalition against terror. The referendum, his latest move on the political chessboard, and the manner in which it has been handled has, however, forced many of his erstwhile supporters to reconsider their position.

Under normal circumstances, candidates in elections bear the electioneering expenses themselves. It was argued that as the government in this case was itself holding the referendum, it should be responsible for the expenses incurred in the process. According to reports, the government spent at least 100 million rupees for over a dozen public meetings held by General Musharraf across the country. Sources in the federal ministry of finance stated that it had released a special grant of 25 million rupees for each province to be used for the printing and display of posters, banners, placards, hoardings, flags and other such paraphernalia during these rallies. And this excludes the expenses, again incurred by the federal government, which were involved in placing promotional ads in the national and vernacular press and in running the election campaign in the electronic media.

Last year, the ECP had spent 1.2 billion rupees on the local bodies elections, which were held in three phases all over the country. “With a greatly increased number of polling stations and polling booths in the referendum, this exercise has been at least twice as expensive as the local bodies elections,” says an insider. According to him, the ECP had initially estimated the cost of holding the referendum at a little over two billion rupees, including the printing of 70 million plus ballot papers, election staff’s allowances, transportation of ballot papers, and setting up of polling stations and polling booths. “The government, however, had to spend a substantial amount more because it later decided to increase the number of polling stations and booths to make it convenient for people to vote in greater numbers,” said the same source. The allowances for election staff in the referendum had also been increased from the 200 rupees given in previous elections to 400 rupees each, plus another 200 rupees for meals.

Apart from the cash input, the government also initiated dialogue with every political party that assured it of its support. The task of holding parleys with various political parties was reportedly assigned to the country’s premier intelligence agencies. Says a source, “These agencies made contact not only with individuals who have political clout but also those in mainstream political parties who have corruption cases pending against them and who could thus be blackmailed into submission.” A case in point: a few weeks ahead of the referendum, a PTV team arrived in Sukkur and filmed the property of a local politician believed to have amassed billions of rupees through corruption during his party’s two terms in power. Shaken by this incident and fearing impending arrest, he was seen frantically discussing the matter with his party colleagues. His panic dissipated only after at least two nazims in Sindh, who were given tickets by the PPP on his recommendation, announced their support to Musharraf in the referendum, despite the party’s unequivocal decision to boycott the referendum. “In Punjab, more than in any other province in the country, there are many corrupt politicians who have not been charge-sheeted for their ill-gotten gains and they were sitting ducks for such tactics,” contends a source.

However, in the run-up to the referendum, the secret service agencies and Musharraf did not always see eye to eye. For instance, they were, from very outset, opposed to the idea of holding any dialogue with the MQM (A). Despite their reservations, says a source, General Musharraf went ahead and entered into negotiations with the party. “The government’s main concern was that in the light of its antagonistic relations with both the PPP and the PML (N), it was all the more important to cut a deal with the MQM, the third largest party in the country with a proven track record of motivating the masses in Karachi,” says an insider. The MQM’s support for the referendum came at a heavy price; the government was obliged to release at least 100 hardcore party activists from jail. “With cases of a heinous nature pending against many of them, they could not simply be set free, so they were released on parole,” revealed a source.

While the government had to acquiesce to the MQM’s demands in exchange for the party’s cooperation, it employed arm-twisting tactics against the nazims to ensure their fealty. This approach was hardly in keeping with the government’s claim to have achieved a milestone in ‘devolving power to the grass-roots level’ when the local councils were elected barely a year ago. With nazims still struggling to run the newly instituted local councils, their essential lack of power was clear for all to see when they were bluntly told that their political future depended upon their success in drumming up support for the referendum.

The nazims and local councillors in all 306 districts in the country were directed by the provincial governments to use their own resources for the campaign. According to some reports, between 20,000 to 50,000 rupees were given to each of the union council nazims for campaigning on Musharraf’s behalf. “This has once again revived the old culture of loot and plunder of the public exchequer,” claimed a source.

According to him, a protest rally was actually taken out by the nazims of some of the union councils in Hyderabad district in Sindh, complaining that the amount of 20,000 rupees given to them for election campaigning was not enough. The protesting nazims were demanding that they too be given 50,000 rupees each as had been put at the disposal of some of their counterparts or else they would be unable to bring their voters on polling day. “A constant refrain with the nazims from the inception of the union councils has been the dire shortage of funds to run even their day-to-day business, but no notice was taken of their complaints. For the first time, for the purposes of the referendum, they were showered with funds in advance to muster support for Musharraf,” he contends.

Sources disclosed that the chief executive’s secretariat in Islamabad sent directives to the governors of the four provinces asking them to report those nazims found to be stingy in their cooperation with local authorities in the referendum. According to these sources, the provincial governments have already recommended action against various recalcitrant district nazims all over the country. One such letter, No: 3GS/2002/3230, issued by the NWFP’s provincial home department on April 23, requests the federal government to initiate action against Azam Khan Afridi, a nazim of Peshawar district, for lack of cooperation during the referendum. Afridi, who belongs to the PPP, is reported as having proved himself to be anti-referendum by not extending unconditional political, financial and moral support to General Musharraf.

Similar recommendations have also been made against the nazim of Multan district, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, for his refusal to release funds worth six lakh rupees for Musharraf’s rally in Lahore. Reportedly, Multan’s district coordination officer had spent the amount from his own pocket for the rally, but when the summary was sent to Qureshi to compensate the coordination officer from official funds, he refused to oblige.

The fact is that the majority of nazims were left with essentially a Hobson’s choice. “The allocation of funds, the implementation of schemes, virtually everything pertaining to the local government, is in the hands of the provincial and federal governments, so the only realistic option they had was to support the referendum,” says a source.

Although the government had left no stone unturned to increase voter turnout on the day of the referendum, it remained, as expected, low and devoid of the enthusiasm usually found on an election day. Polling booths had been set up in every nook and corner of the country, including railway stations, airports, prisons, even hotel foyers, which offered free cookies and tea for those who came to cast their votes. “The entire machinery was geared towards attracting the greatest number of voters possible,” says an official.

Apparently, the decision not to announce a public holiday on April 30 was taken in order to compel the approximately five million public sector employees in the country to vote in the referendum. There were also instances in which employees were instructed by their superiors to vote in favour of President Musharraf or else face the consequences. Says a low-ranking employee of Karachi Port Trust, “When I went to cast my vote, one of our officers told me that the name and number on my identity card will be noted on the counterfoil of the ballot paper and that if I stamped ‘no’, my vote could easily be traced to me and I would be in trouble. Realising that one vote against him would not prevent General Musharraf from remaining president, I chose to stamp ‘yes’ and avoid creating problems for myself.”

Independent observers have reported a host of irregularities such as blatant multiple voting and the casting of votes by obviously ineligible individuals. According to an international news agency, at one such station in Karachi, a woman claimed to have cast her vote no less than 50 times, while one newspaper printed a photograph, whose authenticity, it must be said, could not be verified, of pre-pubescent schoolgirls merrily having a go at the ballot books and stamps. Many cast multiple votes simply for a lark and to see whether they could get away with it. Generally speaking however, those professing support for Musharraf were allowed to vote more than once, even if they possessed no identification papers. There were no electoral lists to complicate matters and at many of the polling booths, particularly at the fag end of the day, the personnel were not demanding identification. Wrote columnist Ayaz Amir in Dawn, “A young friend of mine proudly told me that in front of Municipal Library he had stamped 135 ballots as a mark of his love for General Musharraf. His mother, an active lady, had stamped another hundred, his sister, all of 14 years old, 150. Only fatigue rather than anything else had cut short their exertions.”

A presiding officer disclosed that although the total number of votes actually polled at his polling station in Karachi was 125, he, alongwith the other election staff, had increased it to 900 by closing time. “We had no problems until 6 p.m. Then in came the local SHO with three other police constables and asked us how many votes had been cast. When we told him the number, he simply told us that we were required to multiply the 90 by 10 and ensure that the ‘yes’ vote was around 98 per cent,” he said, adding that they were warned that unless the ballot boxes contained that many votes, they would not be accepted at the returning station. “We therefore had no choice, but to stamp the remaining votes ourselves.”

The office bearers of the Sindh Teachers Association had even more serious allegations of official high-handedness to report. According to them, in many cases where teaching staff was appointed at the polling booths, they were beaten up when they declined to violate basic electoral rules. In one such case, Professor Shahid Ahmed of Premier College in Karachi was badly roughed up by the SHO of Taimuria police station, M. Tahir, when he refused to comply with his demand to stuff the empty ballot boxes after stamping the ballot papers with the help of the rest of his staff. Subsequently, when he filed a written complaint against the concerned police official, he was threatened with dire consequences if he decided to pursue the case. Says Professor Siraj Ahmed Siddiqui, an office bearer of the Association, “There are so many cases that have been reported to us from all over the province in which the teaching staff has been insulted and manhandled for not ‘cooperating’ with the local administration.” The Association has asked the affected teachers to formally submit the complaints against the treatment meted out to them. “Once we receive the complaints we will not only make these facts public, but also call a strike in protest,” said Professor Siddiqui.

Despite the lack of data as to the exact number of eligible voters in the wake of the right of franchise being extended to everyone over the age of 18, the ECP claimed that the turnout was as high as 71 per cent. Independent observers, however, taking into account the irregularities in the course of the polling, estimate the figure at between 10 to 15 per cent. The opposition parties meanwhile, insist the turnout was no more than six per cent and have demanded that General Musharraf construe this as a verdict against him and step down from the presidency.

Analysts, meanwhile, cite various reasons for the low turnout in the referendum, the principal one being the boycott by the mainstream political parties — even the MQM withdrew its support to the referendum at the last minute — and the general public’s lack of interest in day-to-day governance as another. “Like every government in the past, the present regime tends to make tall claims, while the common man hardly benefits from any reforms,” says a senior journalist, who believes that as far as the masses are concerned, the problems of economics and law and order, far from improving, have continued to multiply manifold.

Farce or otherwise, the first phase of Musharraf’s legitimisation of his tenure is now over. And if this was a taste of things to come, analysts have already begun to question the credibility of the forthcoming general elections in October. Their apprehensions are based on the constitutional provision that requires Musharraf to seek the future parliament’s mandate for the confirmation of his tenure as president. This would only be possible if he ensures that the next general elections will return a malleable parliament that is prepared to play second fiddle. Given the manner in which the entire state machinery was harnessed to carry out the referendum exercise, the possibility that the new parliament will be elected through free and fair means seems remote. And in the words of one observer, “A tainted electoral process will only produce an unstable government, and we have seen what happens to unstable governments.” Resorting to such tactics will dash hopes for the country’s democratic future — the very fact that had, in the first place, compelled Musharraf to step in ‘reluctantly’ on October 12, 1999.