NON-FICTION: THE TAINTED VOTE

September 22, 2019

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With democracy being increasingly accepted in political science as a desired form of governance and the state’s three organs —parliament, executive and judiciary — forming its essential pillars, Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay, in the early 19th century, added free media as the fourth pillar. The media was to act as a bridge between the voice of the people and the three pillars, to monitor their working within the framework of the mandate given by the majority during general elections and to ensure their working within the constitution, law and rules.

Nizamuddin Siddiqui, a distinguished journalist and author of Election 2018: The Diary of a Sceptic, came to the conclusion that the media was not acting freely to report the events of Pakistan’s general elections of 2018 and so, was forced to record the events in his diary. The contents of his diary have now been published in a book for readers to form their own views, not only about the validity and transparency of the elections, but about the façade of democracy in Pakistan. It will surely be very useful for journalists, students of history and academic researchers as a reference text.

Siddiqui’s book establishes a stark reality that the media as an institution is not free in Pakistan and journalists working in media houses are seriously constrained to state any events truthfully. What are these constraints? Not all of them are necessarily state-imposed; some are the product of our commercial, social and political systems. Among these, the first and foremost — what George Bernard Shaw pointed out in 1928 — is the ownership of media houses by the rich. Shaw states: “As people get their opinions so largely from the newspapers they read, the corruption of the schools would not matter so much if the Press were free. But the Press is not free. As it costs at least a quarter of a million of money to establish a daily newspaper in London, the newspapers are owned by rich men. And they depend on the advertisements of other rich men. Editors and journalists who express opinions in print that are opposed to the interests of the rich are dismissed and replaced by subservient ones.”

In the absence of a truly free press, a journalist lets readers draw their own conclusions about the 2018 elections and democracy

Secondly, journalists are exposed to killings, attacks and threats not only from law enforcement agencies, but also from non-state actors and vested interests. Consequently, journalists impose what can be called self-censorship by choosing to report safer stories.

Thirdly, general elections in Pakistan — as in any country in the world today — are contested with the power of money. This trend has penetrated into our media as well, be it print or digital. Huge amounts of money flow into media houses from candidates or political parties towards advertisements of all sorts — sordid and scurrilous — and for the engagement of spin doctors to write columns and editorials in print and for the hiring of pseudo-analysts for talk shows aired on television. This trend has polluted democracy’s fourth pillar. Perhaps Thomas Jefferson, the father of the first amendment in the United States constitution and an upholder of fundamental rights, foresaw it when he stated in 1807: “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”

Trammelled by these general constraints, Siddiqui recounts the events of the general elections of 2018, from the period of May to August 2018, and offers his comments on these events to enable readers to form their own views on the fairness of the electoral process. The events enumerated in the book can be broadly divided into three major categories: a general prejudice against the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) leader Nawaz Sharif, pre-polls rigging and post-polls doctoring.

The book cites several events that are suggestive of a general prejudice against Sharif. These cover the joint sit-in by the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) and the Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) in 2014, suggestions made to Sharif by an official intelligence agency to either resign or go on leave while the sit-in was in full swing, and the Supreme Court’s disqualification of Sharif to contest elections apropos the Avenfield case, well before the announcement of election dates — ensuring that the reins of the PML-N passed on to his younger brother, Shahbaz. And when the PML-N chose to select the elder Sharif as ‘rahbar’ [leader], the courts ruled that he could not hold any position in the party and barred him from presiding over its meetings. At the same time, his periodic legal petitions to grant him relief in one form or the other were turned down by the courts.

The author highlights pre-polls rigging to put the PML-N at a disadvantage against the PTI by citing several events. These include the delayed announcement of the elections’ date — that, too, from the Supreme Court rather than the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP); the substitution of nomination papers under the Elections Act 2017 with an affidavit formulated by the Supreme Court; the mysterious changing of loyalties by a substantial number of the PML-N and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) members to join the PTI, which left the two parties unable to field enough candidates against the PTI candidates; the posting of army personnel outside and inside polling stations and vesting them with magisterial powers; the appointment of the interim chief minister in Punjab by the ECP following disagreement on the candidates between the PML-N and the PTI; the arbitrary scrutiny and rejection of nomination papers; the registration of cases against and the arrest of many PML-N candidates; and the large scale posting and transfers of bureaucrats.

The post-polls doctoring events incorporated in the book comprise the delay in announcing the unofficial results until the afternoon of July 26 because of an alleged technical glitch in an app to help the election staff transmit the results to the ECP headquarters; the rejection of the election results by seven political parties — including the PML-N and the PPP — as a consequence of the delayed announcement and other irregularities; Imran Khan’s hurried victory speech on television despite the PTI failing to attain a simple majority in the national assembly to form the government at the federal level without the support of other political parties; the framing of criminal cases against, and arrest of, MNAs-elect; the sealing of the offices of some media houses and the boycott of Dawn newspaper at the official level and the use of force to disrupt its distribution channels. All these events gave a fillip to the PTI to win independent MNAs-elect over to its fold and facilitate a coalition with the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan, the Balochistan National Party-Mengal and the Grand Democratic Alliance in Sindh, in order to elect Khan as prime minister, Asad Qaiser as speaker and Qasim Suri as deputy speaker.

However, the book is silent on the subject of corruption and the corrupt practices of the top leadership of the PML-N and the PPP, their failure to provide any evidence in the courts in their defence, the casting of accountability as a politically vengeful process, and governance for the benefit of few rather than for the people who elected them. The inclusion of the events touching on these issues would have made the analysis on the elections of 2018 more transparent and comprehensive. At the same time, a comparison of the events and results of the elections of 2013 would have helped readers draw a more conclusive judgement on the fairness of the elections of 2018.

The reviewer is a former government servant and author of several books, including Pakistan Under Siege

Election 2018: The Diary of a Sceptic
By Nizamuddin Siddiqui
Badalti Dunya, Islamabad
ISBN: 978-9697753352
152pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 22nd, 2019