Free-for-all; not so fair

by Najma Sadeque

May 14th, 2013

Self-praise is no recommendation. It applies as much to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) as to jaded politicians. Where earlier the much-respected Justice (retd) Fakhruddin G Ebrahim conceded failure on some scores, Mr Ishtiaq Ahmed, secretary ECP, made his self-congratulatory address to the media even before the extended polls had concluded; many hadn’t even begun or were obstructed. He seemed oblivious to the undemocratic practices in polling stations across the country and dismissed a few as minor.

For some time it has appeared that the ECP was working at cross-purposes: that it wasn’t taking its cue from the oft-thwarted head, but from elsewhere. Some ideas were not good ones. While some candidatures were rejected under given criteria, others were accepted on grounds that their cases were pending in court. This has not gone down well with an outraged public. It legitimises making hay until time to abscond abroad before the verdict. Furthermore, the computerised ability to catch out fingerprints from fake ballots is not practical when they run into thousands or millions. Some felt disempowered over the withdrawal of the “None-of-the-above” option. The ECP also lacks the teeth for enforcement of rules, but made the government look correctly dutiful while the good Justice took the rap.

It was an election, if not entirely fair or free. Winners are generally satisfied with polls. Losers much less so; especially when there is irrefutable evidence of rigging and strong-arm tactics. While it is acknowledged that Karachi is a hotbed of various mafiosi, that’s not the only place they exist, and their inextricable linkages with the government never prompted remedy. That gives Imran Khan the future opportunity to showcase corruption-elimination mechanisms. This requires a high degree of standing and ongoing transparency, not after the fact.

Whether the deeply-entrenched mafiosi specialise in real estate, water, transport, utilities, jobs, taxes, pension payments, compensations, or bhatta — protection money from commercial establishments, vegetable sellers, roadside barbers alike, each according to his ability to be squeezed — they cannot exist or act alone except in league with a much-corrupted police and government functionaries for a cut. Unless the integrated mafiosi are sizeably and decisively cut down, and total transparency, freedom of information and concurrent accountability applied, free and fair re-elections can’t be guaranteed either, any more than a free country.

The situation makes polling officers particularly vulnerable. Many are government teachers, subject to those in power. Poorly compensated and disrespectfully treated, they have seldom wanted to serve as polling officers with good reason. It’s rather unfair that they are penalised for not wanting to perform a function, as an instinctive reaction for sheer survival, that is not or should not be part of their job description. As government servants subject to unjust political and mafia pressure, they’re left between the devil and the deep blue sea.

While other quarters grabbed credit for the elections taking place at all, no credit has been given to an institution that enabled it by simply refusing to interfere. Yet, its greater involvement may be needed — plus a revamped ECP of the like-minded — wherever re-elections take place, if a repeat of the rigging and high-handedness is to be avoided.

Although biradari still prevails widely, (one clan may have just been substituted for another) people have become savvier — no small thanks to the electronic media — as well as also being pressured by failing socioeconomic conditions. So, there is something seriously wrong when otherwise well-informed people leading normal lives, continue to blindly parrot party rhetoric to the last punctuation mark — as if they have no minds of their own.

Diversity, difference and dissent are endemic to human nature, as much as the ability for mutual understanding, cooperation and creativity. But it is unnatural that everyone would maintain the same rigid stance indefinitely, never responding when change, negative conditions and wrongdoing arise. This is less a sign of loyalty than a silence of the lambs. True leaders live in close proximity to their people to be able to empathise and identify with their issues, and confirm they belong. Nor do they make second homes and offices in ostentatious oil countries.

The surprise was that the Taliban threat of widespread attacks didn’t happen; violence was mostly indigenous. We were treated to new things never seen before: a cop slapping a woman; hard, video evidence of ballot stuffing; wayward and disappearing polling officers and show-cause notices; amazing coincidences of votes ending with two or three perfect zeroes; and cheated voters determinedly waiting for up to 12 hours.

But there’s still another kind of respite needed: no more compulsory shut-down of Karachi on grounds of mourning. Who doesn’t mourn for lost loved ones? But should the uninvolved poorest be forced to also mourn the loss of wages, their families not eating for a day or more, or the continuous destruction of all economic activity on which an entire country is dependent?

There’s time until re-elections for what was left out of voter education earlier, so hopefully, the channels can, maybe, teach the unaccustomed how to accept defeat graciously (from Mr Bilour, maybe?); discuss the possibility of installing international observers wherever re-elections take place; familiarise viewers with the unfairly ignored smaller parties such as the Awami Party and the Mustaqbil Party; how to nab top crooks who have historically escaped through political and judicial manipulation; the far-reaching repercussions on victims of real estate and other records lost in the LDA building fire; discuss land reform for tillers that the original Muslim League promised in 1946.

Or maybe provide entertainment that they’re adept at: such as a prize-awarding competition for how many ballots can be stuffed per second.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 14th, 2013.

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About denebsumbul

Documentarian, Activist, Journalist, Photographer, Capacity Trainer
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