EDITORIAL : For quality elections

Elections are too serious a matter to be left to the political parties alone. The Election Commission of Pakistan’s (ECP’s) stance to rein in the candidates and parties through a stringent code of conduct has at least created a baseline for quality elections. The ECP has issued a laundry list to ensure violence- and corruption-free elections. Anything that could influence the results of the election is taken seriously into consideration and its limits specified to avoid rigging and violence. Those in high positions who will remain in office through the elections like the speakers, deputy speakers, governors, etc, would not be allowed to participate in election campaigning. Even the caretaker prime minister and chief ministers, not to mention the president, would be barred from taking part in electioneering. The right of voters to cast their vote for their desired representatives cannot be influenced either through intimidation or bribery. No public meeting would be allowed within 400 yards of any polling station. Any action leading to violence such as verbal abuse, aerial firing, wall chalking against opponents and instigatory remarks is prohibited. No loudspeakers will be allowed during campaigning except in public meetings. In short, every civilised democratic norm is included in the code of conduct. However, one area that has been left vague and needs definition as well as reckoning is the ideology of Pakistan touched upon by the ECP. According to the code, no one would be allowed to propagate any opinion or act in any manner prejudicial to the ideology of Pakistan, a restriction enshrined in Article 63(g) of the constitution. It would have been a great service to the nation had the ideology of Pakistan been finally defined by the ECP, since, right from the day of its inclusion in the constitution of Pakistan through the 8th Amendment, the terminology is waiting to be defined or elaborated. Unfortunately, Article 63 could not be amended while agreeing the 18th Amendment because of lack of consensus. Since its origin during General Yahya’s tenure, the concept of the ideology of Pakistan remains undefined and lacking in substance, despite having done enormous damage for its myriad hyperbolic and Islam-centric interpretations. How an unsubstantiated and undefined category can earn respect or be adhered to, calls for a logical answer. If the ECP could put us wise on this, perhaps the country would be saved from further psychological and material destruction.

Another matter that needs the ECP’s intervention is the stoppage of the dissemination of hate material done through seemingly innocuous means. This includes not only wall chalking (which has been banned by the ECP) but rickshaw advertisements that also require a complete ban on hate speech. A country right on the edge in terms of sectarian and ethnic strife, not to mention terrorism, requires caution and restraint applied on any act, verbal or written, that could destabilise the situation. Now that the ECP is preparing to stage the elections, it is imperative that the government announce the date of the election and the caretaker setup for the exercise. The sooner this is done the better, otherwise the way conspiracy theories are being spun, things could go wrong in the run up to the country’s crucial tryst with destiny. It is time to lay to rest all the conspiracy theories, if not actual conspiracies to halt or even delay the elections. There is no other way to do this except forging agreement on a caretaker set-up and announcing the elections at the earliest possible. *

SECOND EDITORIAL : A family’s suicide

In an act of tragic desperation, an unemployed
factory worker has killed himself and his entire family due to the demon of poverty and hunger. The 45-year-old Muhammad Qasim had been unemployed for about five months due to the factory where he worked being closed down because of the frequent gas and electricity load shedding. The factory was located in Faisalabad where many others have also been shut down due to the energy shortage, laying off hundreds of thousands of workers. Taking a gun, he shot dead his wife and five children in their sleep, turning the gun on himself in a final act of desperation. It has been estimated by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) that 1,600 people ended their lives due to mass poverty in 2011, with this number increasing in the following year. These suicides are the very last resort for those thousands upon thousands of people driven to the brink of complete deprivation because of unemployment, inflation and lack of basic facilities. That this particular incident, where one of the children was only a year old, is heartbreaking no doubt, but what is even sadder is that this is just the tip of the iceberg. With millions deprived and the gap between the rich and the poor widening every day, frustration, suicides and crime are all increasing.

While the government may have invested time and capital in pro-poor initiatives such as the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP), which has been applauded by even the World Bank, such schemes do not reach every needy person from the massively stricken masses. The energy shortage is typically seen as bothersome, inconvenient and miserable, but this hardly highlights the mammoth unemployment that results because of it, in turn contributing to the deprivation and poverty prevalent in the country. The government’s real fault lies in the fact that it has taken no steps towards fixing this major woe. Short-term measures such as the Rental Power Projects (RPPs) have been struck down and Independent Power Projects (IPPs) will be years in the making. Not much has been done by the authorities to kick-start any energy projects on a war footing. Our vast coal reserves, which promise to be a national treasure for this fuel-starved nation, remain untapped and alternative energy is still in the pilot stage. The collective suicide of this man’s family should serve to wake up those who have the power to resolve the problem although, judging from the track record of the last five years, this seems a fond hope. A couple of years ago, a man set himself on fire in front of parliament to protest against the state of the country’s poor and we stayed callous and aloof. This man and his innocent family may just have died in vain. *