February Issue 2013

By | Cover Story | Published 6 years ago

Islamabad: The meeting lasted almost three hours. The full range of challenges to holding trouble-free and nationally-acceptable elections was reviewed. Both sides agreed that while the road was bumpy and the ride expected to be rough, the task at hand was still doable. As he got up, Chief Election Commissioner Justice (retd.) Fakhruddin Ebrahim warmly shook the hand of the general who had arranged this briefing at his office and told him to convey his gratitude and best wishes to General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani for “all the support he has extended to this important national duty.” The general was startled. “Who should I convey your best wishes to?” he inquired from Justice Ebrahim. “To General Kayani. I wish I had met him here.” The baffled general could not believe his ears. All other participants of the meeting froze in silence. “I am General Kayani. I am the Chief of Army Staff.” The Chief Election Commissioner was visibly embarrassed and before leaving he apologised profusely for this gaffe. Later, in a press interview he mentioned this incident briefly but qualified it by saying that had not met General Kayani prior to that meeting and hence could not recognise him — an incredible claim considering the General has been at the helm of the army for almost six years and wears his name on his uniform.

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“The EC Punjab is stuffed with PML-N supporters. In the by-elections three months ago, all the postal ballots were stamped in favour of N-League candidates. How is this possible without rigging?” said a senior official of the PML-Q. What he did not say was that the Chaudharies of Gujrat believe that President Asif Ali Zardari and Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif have cut a deal between themselves to keep the elections a bilateral arrangement. 

Perhaps this anecdote is already forgotten by all those who were present at the meeting and their focus now is on the more pressing issue of holding the next elections. Yet in retrospect, the episode seemed to presage the entire institution of the Election Commission (EC) coming under the severe strain of controversy, thereby further dividing the political spectrum. The consensus between Pakistan Muslim League-N and the Peoples Party in forming the EC was bound to crack as elections drew nearer. From the high pedestal of being the first EC created by the government and the opposition, the institution is now trying to ward off virulent attacks. Some political parties believe that the EC is simply incapable of holding a game-changing elections. Others fear the country will lose yet another opportunity to break free of a corrupt ruling elite that has run Pakistan aground.

“The Election Commission could not do a thing when the recent by-elections were rigged,” says Jehangir Tareen, a central executive committee member of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). He then explained how rigging normally takes place. “Presiding officers of pre-marked polling stations are bought off. Ballot boxes are taken to the safe houses en route to the returning officer. The ballots are then stamped and stuffed in the boxes to inflate the vote count.” He implied that it was not any different this time around as well. “When we brought this to the notice of the Election Commissioner, he brushed these allegations aside,” claimed Tareen. A source in the Election Commission confided to Newsline that the EC’s high-ups were aware of such incidents but chose to remain silent. “A senior official was of the view that we should investigate these allegations and cancel the results where these are proven to be true. However, it was then decided to let it pass as this would open a Pandora’s box,” said the source.

Deputy Prime Minister Pervaiz Elahi, whose Pakistan Muslim League-Q is the mainstay of the government in power, is just as skeptical about what might happen in the coming elections. “The EC Punjab is stuffed with PML-N supporters. In the by-elections three months ago, all the postal ballots were stamped in favour of N-League candidates. How is this possible without rigging?” said a senior official of the party when asked to sum up Chaudhary Pervaiz Elahi’s objections to the present composition of the EC. What he did not say was that the Chaudharies of Gujrat believe that President Asif Ali Zardari and Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif have cut a deal between themselves to keep the elections a bilateral arrangement. In one of their formal meetings with the president in January, Chaudhary Shujaat Hussain complained that the PPP was trying to pull a Musharraf on them — a reference to the deal the former military ruler had with Benazir Bhutto prior to the 2008 elections under which he was to continue as president while she would become prime minister. Insiders say that President Zardari laughed off the allegation and said that this was mere hearsay. However, he boasted in the same meeting that he would get another term as president because “the country needs him.”

“The Chaudharies came back with the impression that stories of the Zardari-Nawaz alliance were not mere fiction,” said a Q-League insider. The Q-League is thereby implicating the EC in this alleged deal. The initial objections and occasional complaints have now been replaced by a frontal assault on the EC.

Tehreek-e-Insaf’s alliance with Dr Tahirul Qadri’s Pakistan Awami Tehreek is formed on the bedrock of their mutual distrust of the Election Commission. They have joined hands to pursue all legal and agitational remedies to fix the EC. Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri are equally adamant about not letting the present EC conduct and supervise the coming elections.

Interestingly, the PML-N has its own set of issues with the EC. A senior PML-N leader said, “We think he (Justice Ebrahim) is the right man for the job, but the EC as a whole has revealed itself to be completely vulnerable to the arm-twisting by the MQM on Karachi’s delimitation issue. The MQM have the EC under their thumb. The situation in Karachi will determine how independent the EC is and how fair the elections will be.” The MQM, for their part, believe that the EC is being used by their opponents to cut their influence down to size. However, the political divisions between those for and against the commission is fairly clear. On the one hand, there are the PML-N and the Jamaat-e-Islami, along with some Sindhi nationalists, who want the Election Commission to improve its performance, but without major surgery. Against them is the PTI-PAT alliance. “If the EC could address the complaints we have laid before them — abuse of official authority and public funds for political gain, the presence of known PML-N supporters in the provincial Election Commission and fake degree holders, tax evaders and criminals potentially participating in the elections — then we can live with this arrangement. Otherwise we will agitate on the streets and launch a nationwide protest march. There can be no elections without proper preparation for their fairness,” says Tareen.

The PPP and its allies have remained fairly muted, even though they claim that there is no way they will allow street agitation to dictate who will be the Election Commissioner and who will be allowed to remain its members.
“If there is a constitutional way to accommodate the PTI and PAT’s demands, we will do it. If not, this Election Commissioner will hold the next elections,” said Nadeem Afzal Chan, head of the Public Accounts Committee. This determination will be tested by the heat PTI and PAT intend to generate on the score. It is ironic that an institution meant to lay the foundation for a smooth transition to the next elected government finds itself in the eye of the storm.

But it is not just political blackmail or allegations of crass rigging that the Election Commission has to address. Money is another monster ready to eat up all fancy plans of ensuring a level playing field during the elections. Admittedly, the EC has asserted itself against new appointments, development expenditure and political offices being used for gaining advantage in the elections, and there are rules in place that put a ceiling on how much money a candidate can spend during election campaigns. However, the amount of money parties are aiming to spend is too large to be tamed by paper rules devised by a weak and wobbly Election Commission. Sources in the Peoples Party say that the expenditure for the election can go up to six to eight billion rupees. PML-N may spend almost 70 per cent of that amount, forcing other parties like PTI to revise their budgets upwards from an initial estimate of one billion to almost three billion. Throw in all-inclusive expenditure lists and the funds regional parties will be sparing to contest elections at the provincial level, and it becomes clear that money will make or break political fortunes in the elections, thereby raising issues of fairness and transparency.

These details might sound like the usual glitches and scandals that a national electoral exercise is bound to experience in a politically-factionalised and fragmented country. But in reality these could well become the iceberg upon which dreams of stability could crash and sink, leaving behind an open-ended future for a nuclear-armed country of 180 million people, 60 per cent of which comprises the youth.

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Tehreek-e-Insaf’s alliance with Dr Tahirul Qadri’s Pakistan Awami Tehreek is formed on the bedrock of their mutual distrust of the Election Commission. They have joined hands to pursue all legal and agitational remedies to fix the EC. Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri are equally adamant about not letting the present EC conduct and supervise the coming elections.

That is a nightmare scenario for all except those who would benefit from it. International donors, for instance, are hoping that a slightly more functional government than the present one would steer the economy out of its present crisis which is making the whole system unviable. “The one-window of strong-man rule is no longer available in Pakistan, and we support that, but (this) political government has an appalling record of economic management. If the same situation continues (in the next couple of months), the country’s economic viability will become questionable. You will have an implosion fed by a systemic breakdown,” said a senior representative of a multi-donor agency who did not want to be named. Such dark forecasts of what might happen in Pakistan if the elections do not produce a set of rulers who can take tough decisions and also carry out basic reforms are not just confined to donors.
“We are really counting on the outcome of the elections. Pakistan is far too important a country to be allowed to drift into an uncertain economic future but in the meanwhile someone will have to take charge here. This place is on auto and hurtling down,” remarked a western diplomat. However, there is no guarantee that elections held in the present environment would produce a government that would bring some sanity in governance and stem the economic rot.

“Hung parliament” or “more of the same” are two descriptions that capture the essence of all forecasts about the likely result of the elections. The weeks leading to the elections are even more precarious. No one wants to take ownership of anything. Reading the future backwards, Pakistan’s powerful military establishment has tried to use “soft interventions” to somehow influence the environment. “The army has no stake in the elections but it has a stake in the country,” said a senior serving commander in Lahore, who declined to comment whether corps commanders in their recent meetings have taken up the issue of national elections being held in a manner that lessens and does not enhance political friction.

Presidential and prime ministerial sources confirm that in the last two months the chief of army staff has held a string of meetings in which he expressed his worries about the run-up to the elections being marred by controversy and acrimony. “These concerns were articulated most bluntly when Dr Tahirul Qadri was planning his march towards Islamabad. The prime minister shared the army chief’s concerns about the possibility of anarchy spreading in Islamabad and they both agreed to take appropriate measures,” said a close aide of Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf. However, the full reality of the conversations between the army chief and the prime minister is not covered by this rather bland description. Military sources claim that the prime minister had to be literally “woken up” to the possibility of a complete collapse of the system in case something drastic were to happen during that event. “The army chief pointedly stated that the soldiers would not fire at the crowd in case it got violent. In other words, if they (the crowd) wanted to take over the parliament, the army would not have stopped them,” said a senior military commander. Another military officer confirmed that if anarchy had spread on the streets of Islamabad, taking over control of the city was the obvious “default option.” However, while the possibility of a government on the run before thousands of agitators does not necessitate a military coup, it did raise the spectre of the army being dragged into a chaotic situation caused by agitational politics and fueled by a totally dysfunctional government. The army chief reportedly insisted that the president should leave his Karachi trench and be on the frontline in Islamabad. President Zardari refused to oblige and conveyed the message that he can manage his duties from his basement. He remained in Karachi for several weeks. Interestingly, the negotiations between the army chief and the prime minister then focused on how to defuse the tension gripping Islamabad. Ensuring that the caretaker setup is consensus-based and that the Election Commission is free to perform its job was taken up and agreed upon. It seems that the army does have a lot at stake in the coming election, which looks to be the only path forward for Pakistan, even if it is a rocky one. Sources confirm that General Kayani has been spending much time talking to his corps commanders about the need for democracy to stay on course. “He is doing this because he does not have much of an option. He is in the last year of his extended service period. He needs to justify to his institution that his gamble on democracy has paid dividends and has not gambled away the future of Pakistan,” says a civilian source whom General Kayani often meets to discuss political developments. If that is so, the general needs a gambler’s luck to show something to his commanders at the end of his long tenure. The electoral process that is supposed to kindle hope in Pakistan’s democratic future is marred by devious practices, shady deals and, what is worse, a total lack of consensus and trust amongst the political parties on the rules of the game. Weeks away from the formation of a caretaker government and there isn’t a shred of evidence to suggest that a national dialogue is in the offing on the likely candidates for arguably the toughest job in town. Out of parliament parties like the PTI and Jamaat-e-Islami are ready to take to the streets if the in-house parties do not take their views on the caretaker set-up seriously.

Even worse is the law and order situation as almost half of the country’s 120 or so districts are considered sensitive and violence-prone. As Tehrik-e-Taliban suicide squads prowl the land for easy targets and seek complete destruction of the state of Pakistan, election season offers them remarkable opportunities to strike anywhere with impunity. Protecting national leaders and the public from attacks and mass murder is next to impossible. There are other equally disturbing black holes of bloodletting and violence. Karachi’s killing sprees have become endless.

Intelligence sources claim that a few months ago a “burn Karachi” plan, aimed at fanning ethnic strife to the level of civil war, was caught and nipped in the bud. Smaller plots of mayhem and murder however continue to unfold apace and the city is far from being a stable ground for a sane electoral exercise. Balochistan has become a morass. Areas like Panjgoor, Mastung, Awaran, Dera Bugti, Turbat and, of course, Quetta, can become an administrative nightmare in the coming weeks as saboteurs make their moves. KP is a ticking bomb in the best of times; forecasts about the run-up to the elections are dark and the entire province will be in a “high risk” category. How will all this change? More importantly, who will make it change? Faces turn away at these questions because no one has the answer. That is why elections are so near and yet they look so far.

The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV hosting a prime time current affairs program.