Bars and ballots

Published November 9, 2023
The writer is an author.
The writer is an author.

IN the forthcoming 2024 US presidential election, no US voter with any sense would vote for Joe Biden. He is a heartbeat away from extinction. Those who have taken leave of their senses will vote for Donald Trump. He is a judge’s breath away from a jail sentence.

At the moment, Trump faces 91 criminal charges. Imran Khan claims he has 150 cases arraigned against him. Both describe their persecution as ‘witch hunts’.

Trump could be convicted and sentenced, and — much to the chagrin of his opponents — he could still be re-elected as president.

According to one US legal expert: “The constitution has very few requirements to serve as president, such as being at least 35 years of age. It does not bar anyone indicted, or convicted, or even serving jail time, from running as president and winning the presidency.” Or granting himself a presidential pardon once he is in the Oval Office. (Nixon after Watergate might have done, given the chance.)

We have been ruined by our political inertia.

Trump’s tenacity reminds one of the opening lines of a short story by Ambrose Bierce, the 19th-century American satirist. He began: “The fact that Jim Jones was buried was to him not incontrovertible proof that he was dead. Jim Jones was always a hard man to convince.”

The fact that Trump could be in jail during his election campaign is not an insurmountable obstacle to the presidency: Trump has always been a hard man to convince.

There is a parallel between the forthcoming elections in the US and those in Pakistan. While the date of the US elections is graven in stone (even if their results are not, as Trump demonstrated in Novem­ber 2020), the date of Pakistan’s next elections has been treated as a bauble, a plaything in the hands of those who should not have trivialised their duty to the electorate.

Some might see that the president, the chief election commissioner and the chief justice (CJ) of the Supreme Court — all three being paid out of the same national exchequer — have been passing the cushion of responsibility regarding elections since August 2023, when the assemblies were dissolved. The CEC used the intervening time to develop a thesaurus of excuses why elections could not or should not be held within the constitutional time limit.

Finally, after months of unconscionable prevarication, the CEC proposed Feb 11 to the CJ of the Supreme Court. His Lordship advised the CEC to consult the president, whom the CEC in August had refused to meet just for that purpose. After a stylised performance of belated amity in the Aiwan-i-Sadr, these two decided on yet another date — Feb 8.

The CJ has often advised those appearing before him to avoid citing US judicial precedents. He might consider allowing this exception — a reference to the US presidential election of 1864. The divided states of America were in the throes of a civil war. In November 1864, Abraham Lincoln (then president), had to choose between conducting an election or postponing it.

He decided to go ahead and hold them, arguing: “We cannot have free government without elections; and if the rebellion could force us to forgo, or postpone a national election it might fairly claim to have already conquered and ruined us.” Lincoln took the risk. He could have lost. Instead, he won, both the election and in time also the war.

Here in Pakistan, we have been conquered by our own civic feebleness. We have been ruined by our political inertia. We have allowed ourselves to believe that our 50-year old Constitution is subordinate to the whims of official functionaries.

We can vote only when we are allo­wed to. One more step backwards and we will be told who to vote for and in what numbers, and which parties should be melded into a parliamentary majority.

The year 2024 has yet to etch its own history. The year 2019 is already a date in the almanac. On July 22 that year, two men met in the White House — president Donald Trump and prime minister Imran Khan. Their formal parleys gushed with unfelt bonhomie which overflowed into an over-long tour by the president of his White House. (One Pakistani attendee later complained that the guests tired before their host did.)

Today finds Imran Khan in a Pakistani jail. Donald Trump, if convicted, may soon find himself inside an American one.

Ironically, it is their popularity that has unnerved their opponents who wish that someone, anyone, would rid them of these meddlesome populists!

On or after Feb 9, 2024, Imran Khan will know whether he will be a free man or not. His captors should be careful. Like others in history, the longer he is coiled captive, the stronger and more dangerous he becomes.

The writer is an author.

www.fsaijazuddin.pk

Published in Dawn, November 9th, 2023

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