Keep Transition Short and Sharp
By Najam Sethi
25 Jan, 2013
As predicted, Dr Tahirul Qadri's "long march" to Islamabad last week ended with a declaratory whimper rather than a revolutionary bang. But some significant political conclusions can be drawn from it.
On the positive side, it is no mean feat for Dr Qadri to parachute into Pakistan from Canada after many years, raise tens of billions of rupees to organise and lead over 50,000 people from Lahore to Islamabad in a peaceful march-dharna spread over three days and nights in biting cold. It is no mean feat for Dr Qadri to become a respected household name overnight after languishing as a political wannabe all his adult life. It is no mean feat for Dr Qadri to succeed in waking up Pakistanis to the crippling deficiencies of an electoral system that has enabled incompetent, illiterate and corrupt people to get into parliament and misrule their constituents.
On the negative side, Dr Qadri's demand for the army and judiciary to be given a stakeholder's role in any future political dispensation has raised the spectre of another "Establishment" conspiracy to undermine the transition to popular democracy. In fact his insistence on the application of Constitutional Articles 62 and 63 by the Election Commission to weed out "traditional politicians", even at the expense of delaying the elections for a couple of years, has confirmed our worst fears. Further, the "peaceful" nature of the long march - a fundamental right to protest - was betrayed when Dr Qadri threatened to overrun parliament house by force - an undemocratic move - if his demands weren't met, thereby paving the way for similar shows of force and threat by other non-state actors or political parties in time to come. This is a potentially dangerous destabilizing factor.
The PPP government gave Dr Qadri a face-saving exit by "declaring" it would consult him in nominating the caretaker prime minister to oversee the next elections and empower the EC to apply the provisions of Constitutional Articles 62 and 63 to electoral nominees. But the "declaration" is a sort of MoU with no legal or binding authority, as the opposition and independent lawyers and analysts have pointed out. The crunch will come soon enough when the government and opposition sit down to hammer out the details of the caretaker transition. That is when Dr Qadri may decide to gird up his loins for another "Heave-Ho operation" alone or together with Imran Khan.
There are two critical issues at stake. The first relates to the difficulties in applying the yardstick of Articles 62-63 to over 5000 nominations and allowing due process for fact checking, contestations and appeals. These Articles stand in the way of all those who are not of "good character", or those who do not "abstain from major sins", those who are not "sagacious, righteous, non-profligate, honest and ameen", those "who oppose the ideology of Pakistan", those who have "obtained a loan for an amount of two million rupees or more, from any bank, financial institution, cooperative society or cooperative body in his own name or in the name of his spouse or any of his dependents, which remains unpaid for more than one year from the due date, or has got such loan written off"; or those who, along with their spouses and dependents, have "defaulted in payment of government dues and utility expenses, including telephone, electricity, gas and water charges in excess of ten thousand rupees, for over six months, at the time of filing his nomination papers". The media wants to add tax cheats to this list of No-No. This means that the EC will have to solicit the support and efficiency of the Federal Board of Revenue, State Bank of Pakistan, private banks, utility companies and law courts at several tiers in order to ferret out and confirm relevant information. But this is easier said than done. Frankly, one would be hard put to point to one Pakistani who meets all the criteria for nomination. This means arbitrariness, prejudice and summary decision-making may make a mockery of the whole exercise and derail the process.
The second relates to the time given to the EC to decide such weighty matters in the space between the dissolution of assemblies and polling day. If this is 60 days or less, as currently announced, how on earth will the EC cope with the flood of files, claims and counter claims laid at its doorstep?
The Chief Election Commissioner has said that the EC cannot undertake fresh delimitation of a few constituencies in Karachi in the short time before the elections. Imagine how many more un-surmountable problems a vetting exercise based on Articles 61 and 62 will precipitate.
The only solution is to get a national consensus on the caretaker governments and empower the EC to keep strict tabs on the administrators. The process of accountability and cleansing the system should be left to the judiciary and media after parliaments and governments come into existence.