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DAWN - Editorial; October 10, 2002

October 10, 2002


Choice before the people

THE nation goes to the polls today after an interval of five years. The election campaign was marked by an absence of popular enthusiasm, but by and large the people’s mood and temper remain untested. The turnout is uncertain and therefore also the outcome. Over the decades, military dictatorships and civilian governments have come and gone without making any substantial difference to the lives of ordinary citizens. The abrupt manner in which elected governments have been dismissed time and again has led to a widespread feeling that votes do not count. As a result, the sense of popular participation that is the bedrock of a democratic system has been dwindling. The inability of political governments to deliver even in areas where their writ was not circumscribed by the military has added to the general disenchantment. The people have seen their elected governments being removed on vague charges of corruption rather than for failing to provide the basic necessities of life, which is a far graver lapse. For most people, today’s elections too are not seen as promising a better life. The sense of uncertainty is so deep and widespread that many people are asking: Who rules the country — elected representatives or unelected military men and civilians? So even as a token assertion of the people’s fundamental right to have a say in the governance of their country’s affairs, the elections need to be taken seriously.

The Musharraf government was obliged, under the Supreme Court judgment validating the military takeover in 1999, to hold elections in three years. It has sought to control the exercise by laying down many ground rules that have prevented two former prime ministers from contesting. Several other politicians too have been kept out of the race by the graduation clause. Some of those elected might be weeded out later on charges of violating electoral rules. The regime has made many changes in the Constitution which it will want to stay, specially those relating to the restoration of the power of the president to dismiss an elected government and the formation of a National Security Council. General Musharraf himself has ensured his position as president for five years. It has been said that he wants to institutionalize the role of the military in government. Only three of the main parties — the PPP, the PML(N) and the ANP — have made military-civilian relations part of their election manifestos, but the other parties also know that this is the dominant issue that will confront the new parliament, whatever its composition. It is possible that the PPP and the PML(N) too might vacillate when they are drawn into post-election wheeling and dealing, such being the propensity for compromise of our political parties. But that the question of the military’s involvement in the country’s politics has haunted our polity since at least 1958 has now been so clearly framed — probably because this regime has, both politically and administratively, intruded far more in civil society than previous military-led governments — should be seen as a positive development.

It may take time and further vexatious twists and turns before we come to a resolution. Today’s polls and the weeks and months following that will test the maturity and statesmanship of both the military and the country’s political leadership. Once an elected parliament comes into being, its sovereignty should be unquestioned and accepted with grace by the army. While several steps taken by the government, including amendments to the Constitution, will be subject to the parliaments ratification, some reforms will need to be endorsed and carried forward. The latter include the restoration of joint electorates, greater representation for women and, above all, the 9/11-fuelled drive against extremism, which includes a ban on several sectarian and “jihadi” organizations. Some aspects of the government’s economic policy may also have to be preserved for the sake of the country’s stability. But the hope is that today’s elections will help focus minds on the proposition that there’s such a thing as a halfway house in democracy: we either believe in democracy or we don’t.

A barbaric act

ONE should not be surprised by yet another act of carnage perpetrated by Israeli troops in the occupied territory. The death of 14 people in the Gaza Strip on Monday cannot by any stretch of the imagination be called collateral damage. The Israelis knew what they were doing, for they fired deliberately into a crowded civilian area. This is in keeping with the genocide of the Palestinian people which Israel practises as a matter of state policy. In Khan Yunis, Israel deployed 40 tanks, bulldozers and helicopters, and entered the town with cannons and machine guns spewing fire. What happened then was a repetition of crimes in Jenin and elsewhere since Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered a reoccupation of the West Bank. The murders in Khan Yunis have been roundly condemned by the world. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called it a “reckless disregard” of the obligations under international law to protect civilians. The European Union said the crime was “shocking,” while Moscow observed that the use of tanks and air power was “clearly disproportionate.” However, the comment by the US was as usual mild and merely said it was “deeply troubled” by the deaths.

If it were possible for him, Sharon would have annexed the occupied territories by now. However, the world would not let him do this. What Sharon would like to do is to make life horribly miserable for the people in the occupied areas so as to make them flee. Already, their lives have become hell. Economically they have been ruined, curfews are a permanent feature of life, and they see death and devastation all around them. However, this exactly is their advantage, for they have learnt to live with misery. In fact, in misery they have found defiance and a new determination to fight on for the liberation of their Israeli-occupied territories. They are convinced of their ultimate triumph more than ever before. If only Sharon and his benefactors would have had the wisdom to grasp this truth.

Centres for beggars

BEGGARY, especially in our big cities, has assumed menacing proportions in recent years. Many beggars do not beg because they cannot survive otherwise but simply because begging is more lucrative than taking up a menial job. Thousands of beggars loitering on the streets of Karachi, for instance, are part of organized rings run by contractors who assign them their operation points at traffic junctions for a commission based on their daily earnings. The more ‘lucrative’ traffic junctions, thus, attract more desperate beggars who pay a higher price to beg there.

In view of the ignominy and exploitation attached to beggary, the Sindh government, with help from NGOs and philanthropists, plans to set up rehabilitation centres for beggars, where they would be lodged and fed in return for a few hours of work every day. This is necessary to discourage the ‘professional’ beggars who have made begging a lucrative profession. Together with more meaningful efforts for poverty alleviation, a chain of beggars’ rehabilitation centres in various cities and towns would doubtless prove effective over time in containing this growing menace.