IN APRIL 2002, General Pervez Musharraf held a referendum to extend his self-assumed presidency for another five years. The loaded question said it all: “Do you favour continuation of local government reforms, restoration of democracy; sustainability and continuity of reforms, elimination of sectarianism and completion of Quaid-i-Azam (Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the country’s founder) concept? Do you want to elect President General Pervez Musharraf for the next five years as the President of Pakistan?” In this case, the people’s response couldn’t have been clearer: they boycotted the referendum.
Based in Islamabad, heading the International Crisis Group’s regional office, I drove around Islamabad on referendum day. The streets were as empty as the polling stations. “If the people don’t want me, I will go tomorrow,” the president had said, insisting that he had imposed military rule only to restore democracy. But he wasn’t taking any chances. The only compliant voters were state employees, warned of dire consequences if they failed to turn up and vote in Musharraf’s favour. People going about their business, and even young children playing in the streets, were corralled into voting – a novel experience indeed for many pre-teens. Citing an implausible 71 per cent voter turnout, the chief election commissioner reported that 97.5 per cent had voted for Musharraf; independent observers estimated the turnout at between 5 and 10 per cent.
While the blatant rigging angered most Pakistanis, the international community – far more concerned about retaining the military’s cooperation in the “war on terror” – gave Musharraf’s rigged referendum a pass. The stage was set for the military government to rig the national elections later that year, with the active involvement of the Election Commission of Pakistan, or ECP.
First, Musharraf issued a presidential ordinance placing a two-term limit on prime ministers, aimed primarily at preventing former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, the military’s main opponents, from contesting. A second order required candidates for elected office to hold a bachelors degree or its equivalent, disqualifying hundreds of party leaders and office holders, including former parliamentarians from Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party and Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz. But the commission treated certificates from the madrasas (Islamic seminaries) as the equivalent of mainstream degrees, to the benefit of Musharraf’s allies in the MMA (Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal, a six-party Islamist alliance), particularly the Taliban’s mentor, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam.
Confident that the political opposition had been suitably marginalised and that its civilian allies would win comfortably, the military then selectively rigged the polls to give the process a veneer of legitimacy. This was one of the occasions on which I represented the International Crisis Group as an accredited international election observer and witnessed at first hand the military’s many methods of stealing elections.
The intelligence agencies worked overtime, mapping constituencies and approaching candidates to either step down or join Musharraf’s civilian party, the Pakistan Muslim League, composed mainly of defectors from Sharif’s party. Tempted or frightened, many decided to cooperate. The mullahs particularly benefited from the military’s patronage. Despite strong opposition, the MMA, for instance, was allowed to use “the book” (the Koran) as their election symbol. A young man in Swat, a traditional constituency of the moderate parties that later became the hunting ground of the militants, told me: “The mullahs came to us with the book, saying if we didn’t vote for them, we’d burn in hell. We know now that we were fooled.”
Election day saw civil and military bureaucrats, fully supported by ECP officials, making sure that chosen candidates would win. Even Musharraf’s sympathisers were sacrificed at the altar of political expediency. In Northwest Frontier Province (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), a candidate for Musharraf’s party was told late on Election Day, by no less than the military governor, that he had won comfortably, only to wake up the next morning to see his rival, a local mullah, celebrating his victory. The ECP’s election tribunals, widely criticised for their lack of transparency and their delay in hearing and settling complaints, favoured the military’s handpicked candidates.
Courtesy of the poll rigging, the mullahs were allowed to rule half of Pakistan for the next six years. With the MMA running the governments of Northwest Frontier Province and Balochistan, the two provinces that border Afghanistan, it is hardly surprising that Islamist militants have expanded their political and military clout and undermined Pakistani and Afghan security.
Because selective rigging in the 2002 polls did not prevent Benazir Bhutto’s party from winning the largest segment of the popular vote, or perhaps because he’d finally realised how unpopular he and his regime were, Musharraf resorted to all-out rigging in the 2005 local elections. Districts were gerrymandered, opposition candidates disqualified or coerced into stepping down and state resources poured into the coffers of Musharraf’s candidates. With the ECP’s knowledge and support, the “angels,” as they’re known in Pakistan, worked overtime; widespread ballot stuffing, intimidation and seizure of polling stations marred election day. One of my researchers was threatened at gunpoint in Sindh. Although I had my international observer card displayed prominently, ECP staff tried to prevent me from entering a polling station in Lahore, backing down when other observers joined me. Unsurprisingly, the military’s civilian clients swept the polls to control a local government system – supported with generous international largesse – which accomplished little more than lining the pockets of the nazims (mayors).
With military rule crumbling under the onslaught of democratic opposition, Musharraf made one last desperate attempt to prolong his stay. Because the growing opposition to military rule had led the superior judiciary to rethink the personal and institutional costs of continuing to side with military rule, Musharraf was concerned that the Supreme Court would bar him from contesting for the presidency. He sacked the chief justice and imposed martial law in November 2007. But the shift in popular sentiment had also led the generals to distance themselves from the president, and this, combined with international pressure from the United States in particular, forced Musharraf to withdraw emergency rule and step down as army chief.
Musharraf still opted to rig the 2008 elections with the ECP’s support. But this time he was more careful; blatant rigging, particularly after Bhutto’s assassination in December 2007, would have provoked serious protests. The end result of this selective rigging was a hung parliament in which the Pakistan Peoples Party leads a fragile coalition of the centre. Without a comfortable parliamentary majority, the elected government has been vulnerable to the pressures of unreliable coalition partners and forced to accept the military high command’s dictates on national security and defense policy.
The manner in which the 2008 election was held, including the ECP’s lack of independence, the flawed legal structure, an imperfect electoral roll and the general lack of transparency, all underscore the urgent need for comprehensive electoral reform. Given the fragility of the democratic transition, there is no time to lose.
IF IT lasts until 2013, when the next general elections are due, this will be Pakistan’s first democratically elected government since 1977 to complete a full term without being dismissed either by a military-manipulated intervention or a direct military coup. But early elections can’t be ruled out, particularly given the heightened tensions between the governing Pakistan Peoples Party and the opposition Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz. Some analysts believe that the opposition could, with the military’s support, push for early polls, which could then be rigged by an increasingly interventionist military high command.
The current parliament has reversed the constitutional distortions introduced by the military regime and reinforced parliamentary democracy with new provisions, including measures to strengthen the ECP. The eighteenth amendment to the constitution, passed unanimously by parliament, has enhanced the ECP’s independence by making the appointment of its key officials more transparent and subject to parliamentary oversight. While this is an encouraging move, it’s vital that parliament urgently builds on these reforms. It should grant the ECP complete financial autonomy and ensure that all federal and provincial executive authorities assist it in enforcing the electoral code of conduct as required by law.
The ECP itself needs to deal with the many shortcomings that hamper its ability to oversee credible elections. Highly inaccurate electoral rolls have been responsible for disenfranchising millions; polling procedures are often manipulated; accountability mechanisms for candidates and political parties are seldom employed; and the electoral code of conduct is routinely flouted. Dysfunctional electoral tribunals, characterised by corruption and prolonged delays, have proved incapable of resolving post-election disputes. These internal weaknesses will need to be removed if the ECP is to oversee credible elections and an orderly political transition. Some promising first steps have been taken, including revising and computerizing the electoral roll. But much more needs to be done.
There has yet to be a transition from one democratically elected government to the next in Pakistan’s history. The leadership both sides of the political divide should realise that flawed elections undermine civilian governments and political parties more than any other factor. If the transfer of power takes place through free, fair, transparent and democratic elections, regardless of which party forms government, it will entrench the gains made by the return to civilian rule. A flawed election, on the other hand, will reduce voter confidence in the ballot box and could encourage violence as the last option for political change. This would embolden extremist groups, as well as providing the military with an opportunity to undermine or even oust the civilian government.
The international community should support and engage with parliament and political parties in their efforts to reform the electoral institutions. Pakistan’s international partners must understand that the integrity of the electoral process requires not just technical proficiency but also a conducive political environment. Despite channelling significant funds to the ECP during Musharraf’s rule, the international community failed to push for substantive change to a corrupt and inefficient electoral body for fear that the military would push back. The democratic transition now provides the framework within which international assistance can play a major role in reforming the ECP. Given the significant risk of political instability in the event of another flawed election, it is in the international community’s interest to support a credible and peaceful political transition. •
Samina Ahmed is South Asia Project Director with the International Crisis Group. This article draws on the Crisis Group’s report, Reforming Pakistan’s Electoral System.