Apr 182008

The new parliament can lapse into the kind of apathy that was the hallmark of the one that it has replaced if it is not challenged to take law-making as a major responsibility placed on its shoulders by the people

As a member of a small group assembled to get a preview of the final report of the European Union (EU) Election Observation Mission 2008 I was struck by a discreet and low key confirmation contained in it of the several allegations of pre-poll rigging made by the then opposition parties during the run-up to the elections.

Herr Michael Gahler, the German politician and parliamentarian, gave a matter-of-fact summary of what the observers found out which progressively established for his audience the fact that the government of the day worked overtime to deny a level playing field to the opposition. His main focus, however, was not so much on the blame attached to the wrong-doers as on the group’s pertinent recommendations for free and fair elections in future.

Errors of omission and commission, if that euphemism could ever be applied to elements of a well practised regime of stealing elections, testified to an entrenched view of “democracy” during the Musharraf era. The electoral exercise was not meant to ascertain the will of the people or to provide a peaceful mechanism for democratic change.

Its sole purpose as in the infamous referendum held after the military putsch of October 1999 and in 2002 was to impose pseudo-legitimacy on an essentially unconstitutional dispensation and create a forum that could act as a civilian façade for what began as and remained a military regime.

This was the objective notwithstanding the efforts of a fairly large group of the so-called liberal intellectuals and self-styled security analysts to establish General Pervez Musharraf as a reformer in the Kemalist tradition different in kind from the past military dictators.

The EU report contains enough material to make one conclude that the plan to stage and manage yet another election with virtually pre-determined results failed largely because of a massive and unexpected groundswell of public outrage against the hugely undemocratic and unconstitutional measures adopted by President Musharraf to win another term.

It was not for the EU observers to say so but the plan also collapsed because in the crucial phase the armed forces decided as an institution not to throw their weight behind yet another exercise of what a retired General recently described as “political engineering”, doubtless in the larger national interest.

The EU observers put it rather diplomatically: there were, they report, serious problems with the “framework and conditions in which the elections were held”. There was, they confirm, the abuse of state resources and bias in the state media in favour of the former ruling parties. They make their point by enumerating various articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that were being violated.

The election process began when the emergency was already in force and the Constitution suspended. Several thousand people, including judges and journalists, were detained. The Election Commission of Pakistan did not enjoy the confidence of the election stakeholders. The observers note that the election took place in a difficult security environment in which the threat of violence prevailed and people lost lives. It was not for them to say so but the people know that the security environment was vitiated not just by the likes of outlaws like the elusive Mahsud, who was reckless enough to hold a telephonic conversation on Benazir Bhutto’s assassination long enough for our intelligence agencies to record but not apprehend him, but also through a deliberate effort to create an atmosphere of fear in which a normal electioneering campaign could not be undertaken.

The observers do comment on the partiality of the grass root officials thrown up by a devolution plan which from the very beginning was meant to create a new political class to supplant the one that the coup-makers of 1999 were busy decimating.

Since the plan failed substantially and the opposition swept the polls there is a natural tendency to play down the transgressions against the peoples’ right to exercise their franchise in a free and unfettered manner. Reconciliation is the new buzz word and rightly so.

But it will be a mistake not to hold a detailed national investigation into the entire process with a view to disabling the apparatus designed to repeatedly frustrate the will of the people. If the Election Commission had tended to be partial or ineffective there must not be any further loss of time in legislating measures that guarantee a totally independent body for future.

The credibility enjoyed by the Electron Commission of India has done wonders in inculcating faith in the electoral process that guarantees that India’s diversity and plurality of public opinion strengthens national unity-the idea of India.

The EU observers make their most useful contribution in flagging steps that the new government should now take for future. Their comprehensive recommendations are neatly arranged under a series of unexceptionable sub-headings: the legal framework, independence and capacity of the election administration, scrutiny and transparency, the electoral rolls, polling and results process, political and campaign environment, freedom of the media and so on and so forth.

Obviously a report written on the basis of a limited engagement with a large and tangled polity such as Pakistan is not the last word. But let it be the basis of a comprehensive analysis by national experts and appropriate legislation before the momentum for electoral reform wanes.

The new parliament can lapse into the kind of apathy that was the hallmark of the one that it has replaced if it is not challenged to take law-making as a major responsibility placed on its shoulders by the people. A vast range of issues from blasphemy laws and gender-biased anomalies to the restoration of a legal state needs to be addressed as quickly as possible.

Without this legislative challenge, the elected representatives will once again revert to a dispensation for arbitrary patronage with a further deepening of national gloom. Already some of the appointments made by the federal government are beginning to sound controversial and in a few cases incompatible with national interest.

This time the intellectuals and security analysts whose counterparts in the United States have been graphically described by one well known writer as “Bush’s useful idiots”- a current take on an old formulation of Machiavelli – should redeem themselves by acting as vigilant custodians of people’s rights. For the rest, there should be no let up in their civic responsibility even if they are a trifle exhausted by exertions spanning more than a year.

The writer is a former foreign secretary. Email: tanvir.a.khan@gmail.com

Source: Daily Times, 18/4/2008

 Posted by at 1:09 pm

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