The science of election-rigging in Pakistan

The science of election-rigging in Pakistan By SAEED SHAH
Globe and Mail, December 21, 2007

ISLAMABAD — A photograph carried recently in Pakistani newspapers showed a policeman in the city of Lahore putting up a banner of the political party that supports President Pervez Musharraf.

It was a stark illustration of the allegations made by Pakistan's opposition of the use of the state apparatus in favour of the party that has ruled for the past five years.

Election-rigging in Pakistan is a sophisticated science, encompassing the pre-poll phase, polling day and even the period immediately following the election, where practices like blackmail, kidnapping and stuffing of ballot boxes have been documented in past elections by international observers. Opponents are “persuaded” to drop out of the race or change sides, often by employees of the intelligence agencies.

The last election, in 2002, was reckoned to be particularly crudely rigged and it brought to power a newly formed party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, which happened to support Mr. Musharraf. This time however the eyes of the world are on Pakistan, with the election fast approaching on Jan. 8.

“The pre-election phase is heavily tilted in favour of the former ruling party. It is at least as bad as the last election,” Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, executive director of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency, think tank. “In these circumstances, people think it is futile to go out and vote.”

Earlier this week, Mr. Musharraf gave a speech in which he implored his audience, mostly government employees, to “vote for the party that has supported me.” The president is supposed to be impartial. Mr. Musharraf has repeatedly brushed aside the opposition's complaints of election interference. “They are preparing grounds for their losing,” he said yesterday.

Ikram Seghal, a Karachi-based political analyst, estimated that manipulation would nearly double the Q-League vote to about 75 seats, out of the 342-seat national parliament. However, he said that the party's goal of 110 seats, which would almost certainly make it the largest single party, had been scotched by the army, which is no longer led by Mr. Musharraf.

“The Q does not have the support of the army in the rigging. … This time, there is a deliberate clear-cut signal from the army that it does not want to be involved in this,” he said.

According to the Election Commission, which is not regarded as independent by the opposition, it has received about 600 official complaints from candidates. The commission said that although it had investigated many of them, it had not found a single case where action, beyond a simple warning to a transgressor, was required.

“Ninety per cent of the allegations are baseless,” Kanwar Dilshad, secretary of the Election Commission said in an interview. “This is the electoral war. … I firmly believe that the election will be fair.”

A Western diplomat said that, at the district level, the Election Commission's local offices had little staff or equipment – no vehicles to go and investigate complaints or computers to log them. “They just sit by the phone and note down violations,” he said.

About 2,000 international election monitors are expected in Pakistan. But there will be about 65,000 polling stations to watch. Candidates send their own agents to the stations but, in past elections, agents have been harassed by police or intelligence agents or even arrested. The Pakistan People's Party has alleged that many “ghost” polling stations will be used to bring in votes that were never cast.

PPP Leader Benazir Bhutto has predicted that if the election is unashamedly fixed, the people of Pakistan will come out on the streets, in the mode of Ukraine's Orange Revolution of 2004. The precedent that she does not cite is that of her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who, as the incumbent prime minister, was accused of badly rigging the 1977 elections in Pakistan. A street movement emerged, as ordinary people refuse to believe the scale of his victory. He was removed from power by the army shortly afterwards.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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