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Extremists’ threat to polls

March 07, 2013

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DOUBTS about the 2013 general election being held at all are likely to be entertained till the ballots are actually cast, but a more worrisome question is as to what kind of election it is going to be.

Practically the entire population, especially the political parties and candidates, apprehend large-scale violence before polling day and even during the polling.

Quite a few potential candidates are said to have decided to pull out of the electoral race because they argue that giving up political ambition is preferable to ending up as a mutilated corpse. Such fears are being widely expressed in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and Karachi, and to a lesser extent in Sindh’s interior. And if the Punjabis have no anxieties their smugness may prove costly for them.

Almost half of the National Assembly seats to be filled by direct election fall in the fear zone. If in even half of these constituencies all the candidates are not able to take the field, the assembly coming into being after the election will not be duly representative of the people.

Further, those getting elected will in all probability be persons endorsed by the extremists, or at least not figuring on their hit lists. Such a result will obviously be one determined by gun power. How far removed from democracy the resultant dispensation will be is easy to imagine.

Equally flawed will be the election if considerable numbers of voters are too afraid to go to the polling stations. If the final vote count remains low all those who have been told that no election is proper unless a winning candidate secures 50 per cent of the total vote in a constituency — an unrealistic proposition in any case — will be disappointed.

How many people will accept the election as fair if somebody claims getting to the magic figure of votes without an equivalent number of voters having entered the polling booths? Is it impossible to meet the threat to the electoral process? Most people are convinced that the state does possess the means to ensure an orderly election. The only question is whether it has the power to use the instruments needed to subdue those who indulge in disruption.

The army has said time and again that it has no interest in disrupting the election. That is not enough. The real test of the security forces will be their visible resolve to put down all troublesome elements. Any sign of lack of will on their part will please the sceptics who argue that the security forces’ commitment to representative rule is only skin deep.

Even if the security forces make the maximum possible effort to guarantee a proper election the people must not forget their part of the responsibility. The persistent denigration of democratic politics emboldens the extremists to frighten the people by violence or the threat to use it. That ceaseless denunciation of politicians undermines citizens’ faith in politics is plain enough.

There can be no better proof of people’s determination to support and sustain democratic governance than their enthusiasm for and active participation in election-related activities.

One hopes the rumours about a ban on large public gatherings that will prevent political parties/candidates from reaching the largest number of people will be scotched soon. Mass gatherings have been an essential part of the democratic electoral process ever since the system of balloting was introduced here.

These meetings give the flavour of democratic choice to elections. They also prove that electoral contests are a legitimate means of giving political education to the people, especially where the masses lack the capacity to appreciate printed texts and the oral medium is the most effective means of communication.

One hears two objections to large gatherings during election campaigns. One is based on the argument that big public gatherings cost a lot of money and that less affluent candidates are put at a disadvantage. In fact public meetings cost less than running langars for whole communities, distributing tins of oil and sacks of flour or simply buying votes. The expenditure on addressing the voters directly is wholly legitimate.

The second objection is that large congregations are vulnerable to terrorist attacks. This objection too is not valid, though the danger of terrorists’ causing great damage while targeting crowds is real. Abandoning the right to congregate amounts to handing the enemies of democracy victory without resistance. Besides, large gatherings, if properly guided and disciplined, can deter terrorists more effectively than groups at corner meetings.

However, armed militants and terrorists are not the only extremists that are threatening to disrupt the election. We find the people’s freedom to choose their representatives also being threatened by extremists of another kind — a puritanical brigade riding high on the crest of religiosity.

The responsibility for saving the democratic content of the election system against attacks by hypocrites and unqualified meddlers lies with the Election Commission of Pakistan. But the ECP can acquit itself of this daunting task only if it is committed to preserving the democratic spirit of an election and is capable of resisting pressures from any quarter however powerful and awe-inspiring.

Most people stopped looking at the ECP’s tendency for religiosity once the highly respected Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim became the chief election commissioner. It would be a pity if respect for him prevented a scrutiny of the ECP’s conduct. He himself might not like the ECP to be above criticism.

For instance, the clamour about degrees, genuine or fake, is unwarranted and betrays ignorance of the first principle of election — the people’s right to elect anyone who enjoys their confidence unless he has been convicted by a competent court of moral turpitude and stands barred for a certain period.

The condition of degrees was an undemocratic device introduced by Gen Musharraf for selfish and partisan reasons. It is not necessary to follow his lead to demonise politicians.

Incidentally, nobody is mentioning the religious dignitaries who rose to power on the strength of seminary certificates which were wrongly accepted as an equivalent to graduation. They were challenged in the Supreme Court but the case remained undecided for four years. The apex court’s summons could not be served on MNAs who were parading themselves all over Islamabad.

Far more unacceptable is the hysterical rhetoric about the sanctity of Articles 62 and 63 as if the exercise is not meant to elect policymakers but custodians of neighbourhood mosques and graveyards.

Two dangerous consequences of working with the neoconvert’s zeal are evident. First, the political discourse is degenerating into a pseudo-religious disputation that has no place in a democracy. Secondly, the politicians and candidates are being subjected to the perverse rule that they are presumed guilty unless they prove themselves innocent.

The test of a candidate’s eligibility given in the original text of the 1973 constitution was in accord with the practice in modern democracies. An assembly elected in accordance with Gen Zia’s theocratic formulations will be bound more to his legacy than to people’s good.

Election is not an end in itself. The objective for which it is a means will be lost if the process is undermined by extremists of either variety.