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Home Media Reports 2008 Better times ahead
Better times ahead
DAWN - the Internet Edition

February 17, 2008
Safar 09, 1429


Better times ahead

By Kunwar Idris

TO Nawaz Sharif, the polls on Feb 18 represent an event as fateful as the creation of Pakistan on Aug 14, 1947. Hence he wants the voters to turn up in large numbers to vote for his party. Qazi Hussain Ahmad, Imran Khan and Mahmud Khan Achakzai, on the other hand, view the whole electoral process as a huge fraud, and appeal to the people, one and all, to abstain from voting.

In between the two extremes, the PPP is taking part under protest but Asif Zardari, its interim chief, is confident of sweeping the polls. Conducting a costly campaign, the Q League makes similar claims but on the basis of its enduring service to the people and not just a passing appeal to their emotions.

In the background of these diverse and cunning efforts to win the hearts and minds of the people and their votes, looms the spectre of violence, rigging and the martyred image of Benazir Bhutto.

All three in varying degree must necessarily influence the turnout of the voters and a fair treatment of their vote.

The first threat to the legitimacy of the result of the polls arises from a low turnout because of the boycott by the Jamaat-i-Islami, Tehrik-i-Insaaf, Pukhtunkhwa Milli and some other parties. Put together these parties can be safely assumed to command 10 per cent of the popular vote which wouldn’t be cast.

Another unspecified but larger number may not leave the safety of their homes for fear of harassment or, worse, bomb blasts.

In parts of the NWFP and Balochistan, where even in normal times women do not vote at all and men voting are few, the percentage might fall precipitously. In South and North Waziristan, where war-like conditions prevail, still fewer will vote.

In Swat, it would take a very committed citizen to appear at a polling station in the face of the death threats held out by the Sharia campaigners.

My hunch is that even if violence is not widespread or serious at places because of the organised boycott alone, the national voting average which has ranged between 35 and 45 per cent in the five elections held since 1988 might come down to 25. In the troubled tribal areas and Balochistan, it could be much lower.

And that is not all. The voting lists this time round are believed to have left out many more voters than in past polls. The Ahmadiyya voters, in particular, whose number could be put at half a million, have been cast out of the electoral rolls on an arbitrary order of the president which the chief election commissioner obeyed without demur. Having been put on a subsidiary list they have decided not to vote at all.

The Ahmadis thus constitute yet another boycotting block though for reasons different from others. Considering the omissions or deliberate exclusions from the rolls the number of eligible citizens who have the right to vote but will not be able to would be higher than the count.

The low turnout besides impairing the representative character of the polls carries yet another hazard: the ballot boxes may be stuffed to show a larger turnout.

In that event, agents of the contestants may collude with the polling staff so long as their relative positions are not disturbed. Each candidate is thus shown to have polled more votes than he actually did.

When it comes to rigging, a part of it takes place before the polling. Every contending candidate strives to benefit but my friend Ilahi Bux Soomro, a former speaker, is more candid about it. Half the election is won, he holds, if a candidate manages to get the revenue and police officials of his choice posted in the constituency.

On this score, the chances of his victory in the current contest are dim because his rival is a grandson of the nazim of the district who in turn is the mother of the caretaker prime minister.

According to Human Rights Watch, a fiercely independent agency, complaints in the thousands lodged with the Election Commission accusing the nazims of rigging have gone unheard. And nazims are now responsible for law and order and revenue collection as the deputy commissioners used to be before the devolution plan.

The charges of rigging swirl around Musharraf because the nazims owe direct allegiance to him and the safety commissions formed to supervise the police are also headed by the home ministers appointed by him. Musharraf thus stands at the centre of the rigging storm. Though the charge refuses to go away despite his disavowals, the finding in a BBC survey suggests that while he may not intervene to stop rigging by others he wouldn’t mastermind it either.

According to this survey, almost as many people trust the government to be fair in conducting the polls as those who think it wouldn’t be. The pressure of world public opinion and governments, that of the United States above all, backed by the findings in surveys by the International Republican Institute, the BBC and many others, seem to have finally persuaded Musharraf that he had done more than enough for his political allies. Still if they lose so be it.

There is no reason for Musharraf to rig when the PPP which is rated by foreign pollsters and domestic pundits alike to emerge as the largest single party is prepared to work with him, or at least so says Asif Zardari.

In an atmosphere of gloom, the BBC survey kindles a light of hope. Half of the people polled believe better days for Pakistan lie ahead. The light shines the brightest in Balochistan where despite poverty and discontent more widespread than in other provinces this belief is shared by a vast majority.

Sadly, and surprisingly, Sindh is the only province where the majority thinks we are headed for doom.

This should draw attention to the ethnic conflict which seems to have simmered under the surface in the five years of the Q League-MQM diarchy. Benazir’s assassination has only added poignancy to it.

Apprehensions of low attendance, violence or rigging aside, Monday’s polls will neither mark the birth of a new independence as Nawaz Sharif imagines nor would be altogether a hoax as Imran Khan believes. The modest expectation should be that the change will be orderly, peaceful and also for the better.

© The DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2008
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