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How democracy works in Pakistan

About the author
Irfan Husain is a columnist with Dawn newspaper in Pakistan.

The circumstances surrounding the destruction of a madrasa in Bajaur which killed up to eighty-five people on 30 October 2006 demonstrate yet again the tricky nature of President Pervez Musharraf's current balancing-act. In particular, the involvement of the United States in the assault, and the nature of the protests in its aftermath, reveal Musharraf to be caught between the hammer of Washington's demands and the anvil of his people's rising anger.

Each time Musharraf acts to crack down on the jihadis proliferating across the tribal badlands that divide Pakistan and Afghanistan, the political dangers to him multiply. On this occasion, a seminary in the village of Chingai was targeted by helicopter gunships that levelled the building, killing everybody inside. The seminary, in the tribal area of Bajaur, was just a couple of miles from the poorly marked Afghan border.

Across the frontier is the Afghan province of Kunar, another lawless area that is giving both the government in Kabul and Musharraf's Nato supporters sleepless nights. Pakistan government spokespeople say that the army had evidence that the madrasa was being used to train young militants, and that it was also a base for launching suicide-attacks.

Government critics - and they include all the Islamic parties - insist that disproportionate force was used by the army. If there was any evidence that there were armed militants in the building, they should have been arrested and tried. But Major-General Shaukat Sultan, head of the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) department, defended the army, saying that had the madrasa been approached by road, many of the militants would have escaped. He left unsaid the fear that such an operation would almost certainly have resulted in heavy casualties. The army has suffered over 600 dead in clashes in the tribal belt over the last two years.  

In January 2006, when a CIA Predator drone carried out a similar operation in the village of Damadola Burkanday in the North Western Frontier Province (NWFP), killing up to eighteen people (alleged militants but also civilians, including four children), protests went on for weeks. This incident has already provoked similar levels of fury. Indeed, one MP from the ruling Muttahida-Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) alliance of clerics running the NWFP has already resigned.

In Bajaur as well as Waziristan, there are a number of jihadi groups armed to the teeth. People in these defiantly independent areas have been long accustomed to living beyond the reach of the federal government, and deeply resent recent incursions by the army. Those fighting the army include Chechen, Arab, Uzbek and Uighur holy warriors.

Irfan Husain is a columnist with Dawn newspaper in Pakistan.

Also by Irfan Husain in openDemocracy:

"Kabul vs Islamabad: a war of words"
(16 March 2006)

"Musharraf's own goals" (27 March 2006)

"The state of Pakistan" (22 May 2006)

"Hell in Helmand"
(18 July 2006)

"Lebanon: the view from Pakistan"
(7 August 2006)

"The Baluchi insurrection"
(4 September 2006)

Pakistan's eight-step reel

The techniques used by the authorities to secure the election result they want are many and varied. Here are eight tried and tested mechanisms.

Incumbency: In democracies everywhere, incumbency gives the ruling party a huge advantage. But in Pakistan, elections "normally" take place after the sitting government has been ejected by the president with the army's support. An interim government is then installed to supervise the next election which, under the constitution, must take place within three months of the dissolution of the national and provincial assemblies.

The fact that the interim government is stacked with politicians opposed to the previous government ensures that the dice are loaded. From Zia ul-Haq's death in 1988 to Pervez Musharraf's coup in 1999, Pakistan held four general elections: Benazir Bhutto (December 1988-August 1990, July 1993-November 1996) and Nawaz Sharif (November 1990-July 1993, February 1997-October 1999) were confirmed in their alternating dance at playing the prime minister. The dates of their tenure indicate that neither came even close to completing the normal five-year period before being removed.

Supervision: In the three-month window between overthrow and election, the interim government uses the time at its disposal to make major changes within the bureaucracy. The chief election commissioner is supposedly a neutral figure with a fixed tenure, and therefore immune to pressure. In reality, he invariably rules against appeals from the opposition, while upholding claims from officially anointed candidates.

The federal Election Commission of Pakistan supervises the provincial electoral machinery, especially in the preparation of electoral rolls. These lists are provided to polling stations a couple of days before the election, giving voters no time to lodge appeals if their names are not on it. In theory, they can contact the local election office for confirmation, but few manage to do so.

Identity: National identity cards are another way of disenfranchising large numbers of voters, especially women. Over the years, these ID cards have become mandatory for documents like driving and arms licences, as well as passports. But the vast majority of Pakistani women have no occasion to apply for these, so they don't bother cutting through the red tape necessary to get an ID card.

The election commission, seeing an opportunity to manipulate elections without seeming to, now insists that citizens produce ID cards in order to cast their vote. Since the majority of women who do vote, especially in Punjab and Sindh, tend to support the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), it is Benazir Bhutto who is most affected by this requirement.

Qualification: General Musharraf went one step further in the elections held in October 2002 by insisting that all candidates must be graduates. This caused pandemonium in the major political parties as many landlords, traditional candidates from the rural areas, had never been to university.

Mysteriously, a few of them suddenly acquired degrees, some of which were challenged before the ECP. But the religious parties were hit the hardest by the new rule - until the commission agreed provisionally to accept their madrasa certificates as equivalent to BA degrees. If it had not been for this generous interpretation of what constitutes a university education, Pakistan's assemblies might have been deprived of the collective wisdom of its clergy.

Politicisation: While the state machinery goes into overdrive to help "official" candidates, the authorities shuffle police and district officers around the provinces to boost these candidates's chances of victory. The ever-diminishing number of neutral, apolitical bureaucrats are shunted into sinecures, or posted to the provincial capitals, away from the action. When nomination papers are filed, the documents submitted by opposition candidates are subjected to minute scrutiny, and the smallest flaw entails rejection. This is why political parties always have "covering candidates" whose papers are filed in case the major candidate is knocked out even before the elections.

Media: There are now many private TV and radio channels available to political parties in Pakistan to push their message, but the state-owned Pakistan Television and Radio Pakistan still have the largest networks. An added attraction for the ruling party is it does not have to pay to have its political agenda broadcast. And when the prime minister, his or her cabinet colleagues, or their provincial counterparts are out on the election trail, it goes without saying that their campaigning is underwritten by the exchequer.

Finance: The election commission always has a potent weapon in reserve: the limit on spending by candidates, fixed at an absurdly low figure that, were it observed, would make it impossible for a candidate to run an effective campaign. After the election, candidates are supposed to submit details of their expenses to the commission. However, as everybody knows these figures cannot be accurate, the winning candidate's victory can always be challenged.

Manipulation: Even these infractions pale into insignificance when compared with the real thuggery that goes on behind the scenes. Strong opposition candidates are known to have been blackmailed by intelligence agencies into either withdrawing or switching sides. Often, they are shown incriminating documents, or told that banks will foreclose on any loans they have taken.

While these shenanigans take place at the time of filing nomination papers, arm-twisting continues until the elections. All this time, protests pour into the election commission - which routinely dismisses them. In one case I am personally familiar with, a PPP candidate in Lahore in the 2002 election was declared the winner after the provisional count. By the morning, the official media had overturned this result in favour of his Islamist opponent.

One huge payout the ECP never questioned was the 100 million-rupee slush fund operated by the ISI during the 1988 elections to ensure that Benazir Bhutto did not win an outright victory. This disclosure was made before the supreme court by Lieutenant-General Asad Durrani, ex-director of Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) military agency, during hearings of a charge brought by Air-Marshall Asghar Khan. However, this scandal was the tip of the iceberg: the ISI has traditionally played a sinister, behind-the-scenes role in every recent election. It will doubtless do so in the elections provisionally scheduled for 2007-08.

By the time the long-suffering Pakistani voters make their way to the polling-station on election-day, the meal has been well and truly cooked. On the day itself, open rigging is generally confined to rural areas where outside observers seldom reach. Here, the sympathies of entire villages are known to the local administration, so roads are blocked to prevent voters from reaching polling stations. In socially underdeveloped areas like Baluchistan and the North West Frontier Province, women simply are not allowed by their men to go out to vote.

So the next time you read that the Commonwealth Secretariat team, for example, has certified elections to be "free and fair," barring some minor inconsistencies, be suspicious. Be very suspicious.


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