Uncertainty in the time of elections
Seldom in our history has there been the kind of currents, cross-currents and uncertainty that swirl around this election. The travails of the former ruling party, the PML-N, continue to grow, take on new forms and directions, and reinforce in the process the perception that all is not above board. So much so that the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has felt constrained to take notice of the reports that some PML-N candidates have been pressured into giving up their party tickets and opting to run as independents, with the ‘jeep’ the election symbol of choice. The ECP has asked the caretaker Chief Minister of Punjab (where most of such incidents have been reported) to ensure the safety and security of all candidates to ensure a level playing field and free and fair elections. Meanwhile the judiciary and the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) are at pains to deny any role in the election process. The mere fact that the need for such denials has been felt underlines the storm of rumour and speculation that has overtaken the polls exercise. Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) and their local counterpart the Freedom Network (FN) have added their voices to those abroad and at home who are pointing to and questioning the obvious and unseen intimidation, threats, censorship and self-censorship the mainstream media and journalists are being subjected to. Critics and dissidents on the social media are also under threat and a cloud of ‘silencing’. The pertinent question RSF and FN have raised is how a free and fair election can be held amidst curbs on the media and freedom of expression.
Asif Zardari has stated in a television interview that he does not see 100 percent free and fair elections. He points to the arrest of one of his close aides, Ismail Dahiri, near his home in Nawabshah as a ‘message’ to him. Asif Zardari uses this incident to clinch his denial of any deal with the establishment, a rumour that has been strongly doing the rounds for some time. Had he had such a deal, Asif Zardari argues, he would have been the one ordering people’s arrest and not been on the receiving end of such unwanted attention. What is intriguing about this incident is that it was carried out by the Rangers. This follows on the heels of the claims by some of the PML-N candidates who have returned their party tickets and opted to run as independents that they were ‘visited’ by people in black uniforms and civilian clothes to be delivered the ‘message’ that it would be in their and their families’ interests to dump the PML-N. If all this begins to assume a definite shape and pattern in people’s minds, the question inevitably arises who or what is behind such dangerous shenanigans and to what end. In this matter, the ECP, whose constitutional duty it is to ensure the elections are held in a free, fair and transparent manner, expresses its helplessness to stymie or reverse this trend of intimidation by pleading that all it can do is write to the caretaker governments to ensure such happenings are not repeated and the life and limb of all candidates, irrespective of political affiliation, are secure and free of any shadow of discouragement or nudging in a particular direction. Since the ECP’s powers do not go beyond this, and it is not clear what if anything the caretaker administrations can do to prevent such practices despite the federal Information Minister Ali Zafar’s ‘assurance’ that complaints in this regard, if filed with proper evidence, will be acted upon, public confidence in the current elections process has fallen to an all time low. This election is rapidly turning into one of the most controversial in our history. That does not engender confidence that its outcome will be satisfactory, credible, and acceptable across the board by all stakeholders. If this conclusion has even a grain of truth in it, it seems fresh political trouble and instability lie ahead.