DAWN - Opinion; December 16, 2007

Published December 16, 2007

Making elections fairer

By Kunwar Idris

FOR once the pessimists of Pakistan’s electoral politics appear to be losing. Their sense of loss is more perceptible ever since Nawaz Sharif’s surprise decision to participate in the forthcoming elections when they were expecting even Benazir Bhutto to boycott on his persuasion.Nawaz Sharif giving up his ‘principled’ stand will surely benefit him, his party and, hopefully, also advance the cause of democracy.

He need not feel embarrassed by his retraction. His decision, made after much dithering and heartache, bears out the established norm that individuals have principles, parties and nations only interests. Ms Bhutto quite obviously realised the wisdom of it all much earlier. The pessimists, however, still refuse to give up. The polls will surely be rigged, they insist.

With the PML-N and the PPP both participating, the elections will be better attended. With the interest presently aroused, attendance may exceed the past national average of 40 per cent. In Balochistan and the tribal areas this figure has been as low as 24 per cent.

But a larger voter turnout should in no manner imply that the polls will also be free and fair even by the developing world’s passable standards; i.e. rigged but not massively (Richard Boucher so put it the other day). The outlook on this count is, if anything, gloomier than in previous elections, just because the stakes in the outcome this time round are higher and more personal.

Despite Musharraf’s repeated and solemn assurances to people at home and to the international community that the whole election process from campaigning to polling day will be transparent, even Benazir Bhutto — who was the first to break the boycott impasse — has already been heard alleging that blank ballots in the thousands have been issued to ghost agents.

Her campaign managers have also lodged a number of complaints with the Election Commission. The suspicions of Nawaz Sharif are understandably more deep-rooted because of the personal vendetta involved.

With every party of some standing (with the exception of the Jamaat-i-Islami) taking part in the polls, it can be safely forecast that no one opposition party, or alliance of parties, will be able to get a two-thirds majority in parliament even in the event of fair polls. The government parties can get it but only through rigging and that too so blatant that the scenes that followed the 1977 polls may be played out once again, ending in martial law.

Musharraf’s best interest thus lies not in sponsoring rigging, or even conniving at it, but in ensuring that it does not take place at all. Post-election manoeuvres for power in a hung parliament should enable him to seek a compromise solution to the judicial crisis which pacifies the legal community, vindicates the honour of the judges and, equally important, reasserts the principle of their accountability. Judges, no doubt, should be independent but then they should also be more severely accountable for their conduct than politicians and administrators.

The way the political forces are poised today strongly suggests that the path to a stable constitutional order lies in peaceful and fair elections and not through rallies, howsoever noisy or frequent these might be. The onus lies on President Musharraf to dispel the fears of Imran Khan, Mahmood Khan Achakzai, Qazi Hussain Ahmed, Mumtaz Bhutto and leaders of bar associations who feel convinced that polls under him cannot be but a sham.

The ongoing pre-poll activities only lend weight to this apprehension. After a hasty addition of 20 million voters to the rolls, the government machinery is now being used extensively to promote the campaigns of pro-Musharraf parties. So widespread and deep is the mistrust that verbal assurances or presence of foreign observers will not instil faith in the fairness of the polls.

If President Musharraf feels persuaded that his future, as of the country, is tied up with free polls, he must take concrete steps to make the electoral process fair and let it appear so to both voters and candidates as it was in 1970.

Some measures that would foster faith in the fairness of the electoral exercise are briefly recounted below.

1. The Election Commission should be reconstituted in consultation with the leaders of all major political parties that are opposed to Musharraf but are taking part in the elections.

All of them have shown lack of confidence in the capacity, if not the impartiality, of the incumbent chief election commissioner.

2. The ministers or advisers who are either nominees of one or the other political party or have links with contesting candidates, or are obvious Musharraf cronies, should be excluded from the caretaker governments. The press has been reporting on some ministers campaigning for their close relatives or political associates.

3. The current tenures of the nazims and councillors should be terminated now and fresh local government polls held soon after the general elections. In future local polls should be held on the same day as the national and provincial elections so that none influences the other.

Besides considerations of kinship, the subordinate staff deployed at the polling stations is drawn mostly from the district offices which are now all headed by political nazims who can, and most among them surely will, influence the staff to tamper with the ballot.

4. All new appointments and transfers made by the district and provincial governments after the election schedule was announced should be cancelled. Such appointments and transfers have reportedly taken place on a large scale.

One example is from Sindh where appointment letters for thousands of primary school teachers were issued.

Such measures combined with good intentions may not prevent rigging altogether but would surely help in meeting the relaxed standards of fair play that our American friend Boucher has set for us.

At the same time Mr Musharraf must be made to realise that while the country may survive large-scale rigging, as indeed it has in the past, his presidency certainly will not. The dilemma of the best and the shortest route to a liberal democratic order remains however. Justice Wajihuddin Ahmed is convinced it lies through a complete boycott.

Justice Rana Bhagwandas feels it lies through a parliament elected by full-blooded participation in the polls. Both are honourable non-PCO judges. One tends to agree with the latter because the boycott is unlikely to lead either to a revolution or to fairer elections.

Belgium faces divorce By Eric S. Margolis

BELGIUM is in serious trouble. The historically shaky marriage between 6.3 million Flemish in Belgium’s north and four million French-speaking Walloons in the south is at the point of dissolution.

Political tribal warfare between Protestant Flemish and Catholic Francophone Walloons has lately become so intense that Belgium, a constitutional monarchy, has been without a government for the past six months.

The French TV/radio network RTBF ran a spoof of a national divorce called ‘Bye, Bye Belgium’ that enraged the Flemish. There are increasing calls on both sides to split the troubled nation along linguistic lines. In an act of political desperation, a provisional government under former PM Guy Verhofstadt is about to be appointed. If that fails, King Albert II might be forced to take over.

It’s not easy being Belgian. The snooty Dutch look down on neighbouring Flemish Belgians as country bumpkins who speak a corrupted dialect of haut Dutch. Afrikaans, the language spoken by South Africa’s Boers, comes from Flemish, not Dutch, as most believe.

The Flemish have little love for their Dutch cousins, against whom they once battled.At least historically rich Flanders is booming. The southern Francophone region of Wallonia is a rust belt suffering chronic high unemployment and crime. The French never tire of insulting the poor French-speaking Belgians. Belgian drivers in France endure a storm of insults like ‘miserable petit Belge!’ and very rude gestures. Most French look down on Belgians in the same patronising way they do on French-speaking Canadian Quebeckers — as backward rustics with a debased though amusing patois.

In fact, Belgium’s linguistic conflict recalls the ill feelings between English- and French-speaking Canadians. The Flemish regard the Walloons as lazy, unhygienic and priest-ridden. The Walloons call the Flemish arrogant and pig-headed boors with cold Protestant hearts. None of these stereotypes are true.

Both the Flemish and the Walloons are decent, industrious peoples. But old prejudices run very deep as this writer found when covering Belgium’s election races.

The only thing on which Belgians agree is their excellent national cuisine and heavenly chocolates. Belgium’s food rivals France. Belgians even invented the ‘French fry’ — which the French expropriated as their own.

I’m probably going to have my Belgian restaurant privileges cut off for saying this, but Belgium is an accidental nation. In 1815, at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the Congress of Vienna gave the region of Flanders to Holland. Previously, it had been part of the Spanish Netherlands, then a French protectorate. But the Flemish revolted against Dutch rule.

As a compromise, Europe’s diplomats were forced to cobble together a new state from Flanders and Wallonia. Luxembourg, historically part of the low countries, went its own way as a grand Duchy.

But the marriage was unhappy from day one as Flemish and Walloons feuded and argued. As Wallonia’s coal- and steel-based economy ran down, the Flemish increasingly asked why they should be forced to subsidise and support the economically depressed Walloons. Many Flemish wanted divorce.

Belgium’s unwieldy political system makes coalition governments inevitable. But with Flemish politicians squabbling with Walloons, and just as fiercely among themselves, political paralysis ensued. For a modern European nation, Belgium faces the triple embarrassments of being politically unstable, having an inordinate number of ghastly crimes against children, and rampant corruption, notably in the south.

I don’t think Belgium will break up. The EU is pressuring Belgians to calm down and act sensibly. But tribal, linguistic and cultural passions often pre-empt rational behaviour.

Interestingly, many Belgians are feeling they don’t need their own dysfunctional, inept governments. Given the huge, ever-growing political and economic superstructure of the European Union transnational government based in Brussels, Belgians could readily do without their own wretched politicians. One senses a similar new political feeling in Spain, where the government in Madrid is becoming increasingly redundant, and even in Scotland, Wales and parts of decentralised Germany.

I have another solution to Belgium’s marital problems. Fire all of Belgium’s useless, feuding politicians. Sign a ten-year contract with the Swiss federal government to manage Belgium’s political and economic affairs. Switzerland, with 7.5 million citizens, has four official languages and two major religions. Switzerland runs like…well…a Swiss watch.

That’s what the fractious Belgians need. A stiff dose of common sense and discipline. Then they can go back to doing what they do best: manufacturing, operating seaports and brewing beer. © Eric S. Margolis 2007

Political participation

By Anwar Syed

AN interviewer on a television show a few weeks ago asked some twenty low-income persons about their awareness of, and interest in, the coming elections. The respondents were peasants and unskilled or semi-skilled workers. They knew that elections were to be held but none of them intended to vote. They believed that elections were irrelevant to their well-being. Politicians had never done anything for them in the past and they would not act differently this time either.

Political awareness in the normative sense may refer to the understanding that politics should be a noble craft given to the pursuit of the public good. It implies that individuals can distinguish right from wrong, and that they will vote for candidates dedicated to the public interest. But political awareness may also refer to one’s ability to see through the politician’s doubletalk and discern his real objectives.

That these individuals will not participate in electoral politics should not be taken to mean that they do not understand politics. Many middle, upper middle and upper class persons are not going to vote either.

They are likely to have a fairly accurate assessment of Pakistani politics. They know it is for the most part dirty, that the main purpose of those who practise it is self-aggrandisement, that they will not do what they promise and not say what they intend. They cannot be trusted.

Why not then vote against them and throw the rascals out? Partly because their negative votes may not even be counted and, more importantly, because the alternative is just as bad. The ‘common man’ cannot change the character of Pakistani politics. Participation, he thinks, is not efficacious.

Not every eligible person is registered as a voter. Of those who are, only around 40 per cent do actually vote in our elections. Many of the non-participants from the middle and upper classes share the common man’s view of politics mentioned above. There are others who believe that politics is necessary even if it tends to be evil, and that participation is essential if we are to keep politics from becoming any more evil than it might otherwise be. Voting is therefore not only a right but a civic duty. Yet, some persons even in this group will not vote on the plea that since ‘others’ are voting, their abstention will not affect the good of the order. These men and women are the proverbial free-riders.

If this is how ‘ordinary people’ feel and reason, who are the ones that come out by the tens of thousands to greet a popular leader, agitate a cause or protest a wrong? And what about those millions who do take out the time to go to a polling station, stand in line and vote?

A variety of persons and motivations are involved. There are first the activists and workers of specific political parties, committed in each case to its leadership and programme, who will answer its call and attend its meetings and rallies. They may also go from door to door to persuade their friends and neighbours to join them. They will help set up the meeting place, provide an audience for the party speakers, shout slogans and cheer.

They will do all of this also to generate participants for their party’s rallies and demonstrations. On election day they will get their party sympathisers to go and vote for its candidates.

Then there are people who are unemployed, poor and deprived. They have time on their hands. If they have not taken to crime, their lives are drab, uneventful, unexciting. That a procession or a demonstration is being held is welcome news even if they have no affiliation with its sponsors. They will join, and if some wrong is being protested, which is likely to be the case, they will have fun and reason to feel virtuous.

This will be an occasion for them to let out their pent up anger at the abuse and humiliation they believe the existing social order has been handing out to them. As the rally picks up steam, and orators breathe fire and inflame the participants, the latter feel free to target their righteous wrath at the ‘system’, its agents and symbols. They will attack police stations and other government establishments, destroy public buses and private automobiles, break into stores and wreck or plunder merchandise. The exercise gives them a sense of power that comes their way only rarely.

Left to themselves, the masses do not normally act to change the status quo howsoever oppressive it may be. There may be occasional, spontaneous outbursts of defiance but they accomplish nothing, for they are easily suppressed.

Systemic change requires sustained and organised action, which in turn requires instigators, organisers and managers. They come from the ranks of the counter-elite standing in opposition to the ruling elite (guardians of the status quo).

In Pakistan the feudal lords, generals, higher bureaucrats and of late the ‘robber barons’ of commerce and industry compose the ruling elite. Who are then the counter-elite here? Political parties opposing the present regime (the PPP, PML-N, JUI-F, Jamaat-i-Islami, ANP and some of the nationalist parties in Balochistan) have been ruling parties (or partners in ruling coalitions) for periods of time at the national or provincial level. They will promise reforms so as to bring more of the good things of life to the people.

But none of them, other than the JI and possibly the JUI, stands for basic change in the present social order and property relationships. The Islamic parties, if they had their way, would probably focus their reformist endeavour on governance, individual lifestyles and certain aspects of social interaction.

The opposition parties think of themselves as ‘governments-in-waiting’ within the existing framework of governance. None of them is then to be counted among the counter-elite. With one partial exception, this has been the case throughout our historical experience. No political force that was anything to speak of has ever posed a credible challenge to the status quo.

During his extended mass mobilisation campaign (1967-71), Zulfikar Ali Bhutto presented himself as the harbinger of radical socio-economic change, and the people of this country — peasants, workers, and various other little guys — rallied to his standard. But to the amazement and consternation of many of his admirers he changed his mind within two years in power.

No other politician has attempted to mobilise the masses and given them reason to get involved. Politics in Pakistan, as in many other societies, is a contest for power between rival elite formations. Leaving aside the Islamic parties, there are no visible ideological distinctions between them.

These distinctions have been fading and politics has been moving closer to centrist positions in much of the rest of the world, especially since the overthrow of communist regimes in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe.

Electoral politics in Pakistan means competition for the voluntary, forced or seduced allegiance of roughly 20 per cent of the adult population (the proportion that normally votes). Participation of the common man is neither sought nor offered.

The writer is a visiting professor at the Lahore School of Economics.


© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2007



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