The South Asia Channel

The problem with Pakistan's democracy

On Sunday, former military dictator Pervez Musharraf was at last given permission to run in the parliamentary elections scheduled for May 11, but only in the northern district of Chitral. Two other districts rejected his nomination papers, and his application in Islamabad is still pending. Elections officials in Pakistan, acting under directives of the country's Supreme Court, have excluded several candidates -- among them Musharraf -- from running in the elections. This pre-selection of candidates is based on controversial Articles 62 and 63 of the Constitution, decreed by military ruler General Zia ul-Haq in 1985 as part of his Islamization agenda. These articles forbid anyone who does not meet the test of being a good Muslim or patriotic Pakistani from becoming members of Pakistan's parliament. Until now, the highly subjective criteria of these provisions have never been implemented in practice.

This time around, the Election Commission of Pakistan has allowed officials in each parliamentary district to vet candidates. The result is a mish-mash of arbitrary decisions. Almost 100 members of the out-going legislatures, many of them deemed popular enough to win re-election, have been disqualified for producing fake college degrees at the last poll, when the generals mandated the possession of one as a pre-condition for membership in parliament. The law was changed by parliament in 2008 and it is questionable why, after serving for five years, these politicians are being challenged now.

Former Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf was disqualified on grounds of unproven corruption allegations. Musharraf was barred from running in two districts while being found sufficiently sagacious in another. The leader of the opposition in the outgoing parliament, Chaudhry Nisar Ali, was similarly found to be lacking in the criteria in one district where he filed his nomination papers, while being allowed to run in another.

The last few days have witnessed the spectacle of Election Officers asking candidates to recite specific verses from the Quran, prove that they pray five times a day, and in the case of a female candidate, even respond to the question "How can you be a good mother if you serve in parliament and are too busy to be fulfill your religious duties as a wife and mother?"

The pre-qualification conditions have adversely affected liberal candidates while favoring Islamist ones. Columnist Ayaz Amir, who is part of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League, has been disqualified from running as a candidate because he wrote articles that were "disparaging" about the ‘ideology' of Pakistan. Militant and terrorist leaders have had no problem in meeting the litmus test of religiosity and commitment to Pakistan's ideology. Nomination papers for Maulana Mohammad Ahmad Ludhianvi, who heads Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, a reincarnation of a banned terrorist organization, were cleared even though he has publicly acknowledged his role in the killing of Shias in the country.

In addition to facing discrimination from election officials, liberal politicians must also contend with threats from terrorists - threats that have not persuaded the judiciary or the permanent state apparatus to enhance security for these politicians. Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has warned that candidates and rallies of ‘secular' parties like the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), Muttahida Qaumi Movement, and Awami National Party (ANP) would be targeted, and the targeting has already begun. The ANP lost one of its finest leaders, Bashir Ahmed Bilour, a few months ago. The TTP took credit for the murder.

The elimination of liberal political figures must be seen as part of the process of creeping Islamization, as well as the permanent militarization of Pakistan, which began during Zia ul-Haq's military dictatorship. Using Islam and a narrow definition of patriotism to limit the options available to voters is nothing new. It is a direct outcome of Pakistan's long history of dominance by unelected institutions of state, euphemistically referred to as the ‘establishment.' In addition to existing under direct military rule for half its life as an independent country, Pakistan has always lived in the shadow of the ubiquitous influence of generals, judges, and civil servants.

No elected parliament was ever allowed to complete its full term until this year. But instead of allowing voters to choose the new government in a free and fair election, the establishment wants to make sure that the voters have only limited choice at the polls. A direct military coup is no longer feasible. The politicians, led by President Asif Zardari, have foiled bids by the judiciary to virtually become the executive. The battle between elected leaders and unelected judges has come at great cost to several outspoken individuals in the country's politics. Now, an election with pre-qualification could ensure the establishment's supremacy without overtly pulling back the democratic façade.

From the establishment's perspective, Pakistan's politicians cannot be trusted to lead or run the country even if they manage to get elected by popular vote. The political system must somehow be controlled, guided, or managed by the unelected institutions who deem themselves morally superior and even more patriotic than those supported by the electorate. This patrician approach is reflected in the assertions of Generals Ayub Khan (1958-69), Yahya Khan (1969-71), Zia ul-Haq (1977-1988) and Musharraf (1999-2008) at the time they took power in coups d'état. It can also be found in the constant efforts by Supreme Court judges and civil servants to second-guess the people by deciding who is and who is not eligible to run in elections.

General Zia ul-Haq created structures for limiting democracy that would outlast him. He drastically changed the constitution and legal regime in ways that have proved difficult to reverse, even a quarter century after his death. The outgoing Pakistani parliament completed its term and amended the constitution to make it closer to what it was originally intended to be. But the Islamic provisions introduced by Zia ul-Haq persist, enabling the establishment to use Islam as an instrument of control and influence over the body politic.

Article 62 demands that a candidate for parliament demonstrate that "he is of good character and is not commonly known as one who violates Islamic Injunctions; he has adequate knowledge of Islamic teachings and practices obligatory duties prescribed by Islam as well as abstains from major sins; he is sagacious, righteous and non-profligate, honest and ameen, there being no declaration to the contrary by a court of law; and that he has not, after the establishment of Pakistan, worked against the integrity of the country or opposed the ideology of Pakistan."

Article 63 disqualifies a Pakistani from becoming an MP if "he has been convicted by a court of competent jurisdiction for propagating any opinion, or acting in any manner, prejudicial to the ideology of Pakistan, or the sovereignty, integrity or security of Pakistan, or morality, or the maintenance of public order, or the integrity or independence of the judiciary of Pakistan, or which defames or brings into ridicule the judiciary or the Armed Forces of Pakistan."

Both constitutional provisions provide considerable leeway to an ideological judiciary to influence the electoral process and exclude critics of the establishment from the next legislature. The recent celebration and positive commentary over parliament completing its term should not distract us from an ugly reality. Pakistan's establishment may have refrained from another direct coup, but it is still far from accepting the basic premise of democracy - the supremacy of parliament among institutions and the right of the people to vote for whomever they choose.

Farahnaz Ispahani is a former member of the Pakistani parliament and former Media Advisor to President Asif Ali Zardari, as well as a writer and minority rights advocate.

RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP/Getty Images

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