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Dodgy elections

Updated June 16, 2018


AROUND the world, the democratic process based on free, fair and transparent elections is under threat. Charges of gerrymandering — the redrawing of electoral boundaries to the advantage of the party in power — are rife. Countries like Russia have been accused of influencing the 2017 presidential election in the US — a bit rich coming from a country that has meddled in elections around the world for years. Outright rigging is hardly unknown.

And even when some leaders are elected fairly, they use the state-controlled media and judiciary to ensure their victory in the next election. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iranian president from 2005 to 2013, was re-elected in 2009 amidst widespread protests over rigging that saw dozens killed and hundreds arrested. Finally, the Revolutionary Guards stamped out the protests, but at a cost.

Having completed two terms, Ahmadinejad was barred by the Guardian Council from contesting the 2017 poll won by Hasan Rouhani in a landslide. In an ironic turnaround, the ex-president wrote to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei: “An immediate and essential need is the holding of quick and free elections for the presidency and parliament, of course without the engineering of the Guardian Council and interference of military and security institutions, so the people have the right to choose.”

Many countries have lived through rigged polls.

For us in Pakistan, all this sounds very familiar. But conveniently, Ahmadinejad forgets his government’s crackdown on anti-rigging protesters. In Turkey, crucial parliamentary elections that could shape the country’s direction for years to come are due on June 24. Erdogan has used the judiciary and media (mostly controlled by friendly business groups) to create an environment conducive to the ruling AKP victory. Many parliamentarians and activists from a party linked to the Kurds have been arrested. In last year’s referendum on changing Turkey’s constitution to make it a presidential rather than a parliamentary system, there were accusations of fraud. Given the vast resources of the Turkish state, an outright victory for Erdogan is on the cards, avoiding the unpredictability of a second round of voting.

Although Donald Trump is in the White House, a special prosecutor continues his probe into possible links between the Trump campaign and Russian individuals and institutions. Mark Zuckerberg recently testified before a congressional committee that grilled him over Facebook’s role in carrying fake news through accounts apparently created by Russian entities.

But America has lived through many rigged elections. The most unsavoury one was the presidential election of 2000 when Al Gore defeated George W. Bush by a million votes. But in the US, it is the electoral college that determines the next president, and in 2000, it was all down to Florida where Jeb Bush, George W’s brother, was governor. The vote was so close that the state electoral authority ordered a recount. This decision was overruled by the supreme court, and we still don’t know in which column the 537 uncounted votes would have been recorded. Bush’s victory gave us the invasion of Afgha­nistan and Iraq, and the ‘war on terror’.

Islamist groups have been arguing for years that elections should be boycotted. They claimed justification when the Muslim Brotherhood won the Egyptian poll under the banner of the Freedom and Justice party in 2012, and formed a coalition government, only to see it toppled by Gen Sisi. In 2014, Sisi won the presidential election, garnering over 95 per cent of the votes.

In the early 1990s, an Islamist party was poised to win the polls in Algeria, but the army-dominated government cancelled the poll, triggering a decade of civil war that saw thousands dead. In both Egypt and Algeria, the Islamists were proved right in their denunciation of electoral politics. The other side of the argument is that once a religious party is in power, it decides it needs to stay as it is doing God’s work. In Iran, where elections are held regularly, the Guardian Council vets each candidate to ensure that he is a good Muslim with a sound character. Thus, the religious hierarchy created by Ayatollah Khomeni remains intact.

Joseph Stalin famously said: “It is enough that the people know there was an election. The people who cast the votes decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide everything.”

Despite this view, fair elections are still possible. I was in Sri Lanka in 2016 when snap polls were called by then president Mahinda Rajapakse on the advice of his soothsayer. I was sure that given his family’s stake in remaining in power, he would rig the election, but it was free and fair, and the incumbent lost. To ensure this surprise outcome, activists from opposition parties kept an eye on each polling station, their mobile phones cameras at the ready. They then followed the ballot boxes to the local counting stations. Their presence caused polling staff to go by the book.

Is there a lesson here for Pakistan?

Published in Dawn, June 16th, 2018