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|October 9, 2002||
The Rediff Interview/Saeed Shafqat
With Pakistan going to the polls tomorrow, October 10, all eyes are fixed on how the political scenario will unfold in the country. In the background of the recent changes in the constitution which give President Pervez Musharraf enormous powers, the road back to democracy is likely be difficult. Political parties are critical of the changes, and of the formation of the National Security Council, which will be headed by the president.
Professor Saeed Shafqat, Distinguished Professor (Pakistan Studies) at the School of International and Public Affairs, Southern Asian Institute, Columbia University, and founding member of the Department of Pakistan Studies at Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, spoke to Tanmay Kumar Nanda in New York about the likely impact of the election.
How do you see the October 10 poll shaping up?
In the first place, it's a very good beginning that elections are taking place. What is equally important is that political parties are participating despite the fact that some of their senior members such as Nawaz Sharief and Benazir Bhutto have been eliminated from the process.
Therefore, it seems they have given some degree of legitimacy to the constitutional changes, even as the political parties like the Pakistan Peoples Party and Pakistan Muslim League (N) have been vocal and critical about it. But the fact [that] they are participating is good news and one should see it in that perspective.
To what extent do you see popular participation and to what extent will the polls be reflective of people's opinion.
It seems to me that popular participation is already visible. People have begun to flock together politically as they feel this is one way of ventilating or expressing opinion.
The other question is who the participants are and how many are really participating. For example, an interesting fact is that the ratio of applications to contestants is almost 1:7 for a total of about 1,070 seats. This is despite the clause that a contestant has to at least have a BA degree and in a large population that is a good sign. It can be interpreted in two ways: there is going to be intense competition or there is too much of fragmentation.
What about the changes in voter profiles?
One positive change is the reduction of voting age from 21 to 18. Apart from the obvious jump in numbers, there will be a lot of new, enthusiastic inductees in the polls. The second important change in the constitution, and which is a positive one, is that Pakistan has gone back to the system of joint electorate, which means that Christians and minorities can also participate in the polls.
Third, there is the gender issue. It is now mandatory that 33 per cent of representatives will be women. But this will be meaningful if there is a large voter turnout. If political rallies are an indicator, parties have not been able to generate mass mobilization.
What effect will the changes in the constitution have on the post-poll scenario?
The major criticisms of the constitutional changes are basically of two types. One, there is strong criticism of the National Security Council and almost all major political parties have suggested that if and when they come to power, they would like to make their own changes and in all probability not accept the NSC as part of the constitution.
The other criticism is related to Clause 52-8-b, which gives the president power to dismiss the assembly. Obviously, the parties are not happy about this and almost all of them have said they would do away with this if they come to power. While the present government doesn't want that, one must remember that politics has its own dynamics.
The 1985 elections are a case in point when political parties weren't allowed but were formed immediately after the assembly came into existence. So one can expect lot of squabbling in the post-election phase; the real challenge for the government will be smooth management of the electoral outcome.
Right now, it's equally interesting to note and recognise that though the government has been able to ban the coming in of Sharief and Bhutto, once political parties come into power, politics is restored, then the war game may change.
It remains to be seen how and to what degree political parties will take a strong position in telling the president that they would like to see the return of their own leaders. That chapter is not completely closed.
What kind of legitimacy do you think the election will give both parties considering that President Musharraf has vested himself with powers to dismiss the national assembly?
There was a lot of criticism when he held the referendum. Unfortunately, it did compromise his, if one may say, image and there was criticism from political parties that it was not required and there were allegations of rigging.
A fundamental point one needs to recognise is that the elections will give legitimacy to political parties. The current military government, even if it had wished, has not been unable to eliminate or do away with the parties. They did not repeat the mistake of 1985, they didn't call for no-party polls.
This time, the political parties were also smarter. They did not boycott the elections as in 1985, as a result of which many parties of the Movement for Restoration of Democracy were wiped out of the political process. This time, they have been very careful not to boycott, but have taken it with a pinch of salt and accepted that even if Bhutto and Sharief are left out, they are willing to accept and participate in the political process.
What about the religious parties, where do they fit into this equation?
This is a very interesting and very important area. What has happened for what seems to be the first time in Pakistani politics is that a number of religious political parties --- including the defunct Tehrik-e-Nafaze-Jafriya, a Shia political party --- have joined hands to form a coalition called the Muttaheda Majlis-e-Amal.
One needs to see that from two perspectives. One, they are trying to convey that they are not totally opposed to democracy, are willing to participate in the electoral process to establish their credentials and that they believe in democracy.
Two, it will interesting to see if they can make adjustments on seats and if their percentage of votes increases, which has never gone beyond 5 per cent since 1985. If they can, it will indicate the mood of the people and that religious parties do have legitimate basis.
How does this reflect on the perception that the religious parties are backing terrorism in Pakistan?
It seems to me the religious parties, particularly mainstream ones, have been careful and crafty in dissociating, or at least distancing themselves, from the militant or jihadi organisations, some of who are on record opposing polls. For example, the Lashkar-e-Tayiba openly and categorically stated that democracy is anti-Islamic and therefore unacceptable. Then, for some other religious militant organisations that have been involved in cross-border violations, democracy is a non-issue.
So none of the jihadi organisations have shown any interest in the elections. So these religious political parties, which are mainstream, have gone public to ensure they remain credible, and three of them, Jamiat Ulema-i-Islami, Jamaat-i-Islami, and Jamiat Ulema-i-Pakistan, have always participated in the elections.
But do you see any threat to the polling process from the jihadi groups?
No. Militant groups will not be in any kind of threat to the electoral process. Number one, one needs to recognise that most of these groups make a claim that they would like to revive Islam as they perceive it. So they are more like a revivalist movement. Two, they also believe or project themselves as some sort of puritanical groups who would oppose any 'outside, Western, secular influences'. And three, most of these groups, in one way or the other, support or identify with the larger Islamic movements or causes. They are not necessarily part of an international network, but somehow or the other, symbolically and from their point of view, as a matter of principle they would like to raise their voice wherever they feel or believe Muslims or Islamic causes are in jeopardy.
And finally, one component of this is that in the last 10 years or so, some of these militant organisations have hijacked the anti-India campaign, monopolised themselves in basically opposing what they perceive as Indian oppression in Kashmir.
Will they resort to violence during the polls in Pakistan?
They are not a real serious threat to the democratic process, but what has happened is that they have become a serious law-and-order issue. For example, the attacks that are either of sectarian nature or on Christians, they are the kind of activities that really shows them up as more or less violent groups, full of venom and hatred and not willing to tolerate anything different from what they believe.
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