By Shahzada Irfan Ahmed –
Unease about the scrutiny process is not without justification
Who else former interior minister Rehman Malik is indebted to than the Returning Officers (ROs) who interviewed aspiring candidates for the upcoming elections? As part of the scrutiny required to approve their nomination papers, they asked questions which the candidates would have least expected from them.
A lot of these questions pertained to religious knowledge of a candidate in general as well as that pertaining to his/her personal life and privacy.
Malik, who had been ridiculed for not being able to recite Quranic verses properly in a cabinet meeting, suddenly felt he was not alone in his quest to prove himself a practising Muslim. Thanks to the ROs’ scrutiny, he was joined by coteries who could not properly recite Kalimas, explain how a dead body is given ritual bath under Islam, tell what makes a bath obligatory on Muslims, differentiate azan (call) for morning prayers from that recited for other prayers and so on.
As already reported extensively, these questions and many which cannot be quoted here for being indecent were asked under the pretext of gauging a person’s knowledge of Islam, his/her integrity, morality and trustworthiness as defined under the Article 62 and 63 of the Constitution of Pakistan.
A local weekly reported that a female candidate was asked, in the presence of men, whether she takes bath in a state of semi-nudity or full nudity.
Defaults on loans and utility bills also lead to disqualification of candidates but these issues did not get as much attention of ROs as the personal conduct of the candidates.
Whether or not such questions served the declared purpose of weeding out the bad eggs from contesting polls, they did invite ridicule from all over the world. The country became the centre of media attention, once again for a wrong reason.
There would have been several more startling questions if a Lahore High Court order had not put a bar on the ROs’ creative thought process. They were stopped by the court from asking “inappropriate” questions which are not related to the contents of the nomination papers of candidates or the objections raised by their opponents.
A large number of candidates disqualified by ROs won relief from tribunals and higher courts.
Being able to recite Kalima and belief in the finality of Prophethood have remained standard benchmarks for long to identify a Muslim but now a whole set of new questions was there for the same purpose.
This chain of events gives birth to certain questions which baffle many. For example, why was non-compliance with Articles 62 and 63 the apparent basis of disqualification for a candidate and not financial impropriety? Even if it was the case, why wasn’t it applied even-handedly? Why candidates applying from multiple constituencies receive different verdicts from different Returning Officers? And why it was so easy for those affected by these orders to win clean chits through appeals?
Pique talked to different people following these developments in a bid to get answers to these simple but tricky questions.
Barrister Salman Safdar, who has dealt in several high-profile cases and is currently the defence counsel in the Benazir Bhutto assassination case, believes the ROs had no clear understanding of the use of Articles 62 and 63. That’s why they applied these clauses as per their personal understanding and resultantly there was no consistency in the questioning done by different ROs, he says.
A person sitting in Karachi judged a candidate according to his own whims and the other in Quetta according to his in the absence of a proper guideline for line. This is also why one candidate applying from multiple constituencies received approval and rejection at the same time, he adds.
Salman says the role of ROs, election tribunals etc. should ideally be enabling not restrictive, but in this case they passed orders against candidates on flimsy grounds and without any evidence. The fact that a large number of appeals were accepted against these decisions and relief granted in many of them proves the ROs’ orders were controversial, he emphasizes.
The lawyers appearing in tribunals and courts could easily base their appeals on flaws in ROs’ orders. Salman Akram Raja, who represented Ayaz Amir, could prove that though his client had talked about wine in his column the text does not prove that he had actually consumed it. The nomination papers of Ayaz Amir had been rejected on grounds that he had written a column in which he had praised drinking habits of a deceased and having learnt a lot from him about this art. His writings were also termed opposed to the very ideology of Pakistan.
Azhar Siddiq Advocate, a petitioner in a case that led to the restrictive order for ROs from LHC judge Justice Mansoor Ali Shah, thinks the issue was created just to keep people’s attention diverted from the real issues such as those pertaining to financial impropriety.
He holds Election Commission of Pakistan responsible for the mess on grounds that it should have formulated a proper policy to govern the scrutiny process under the powers awarded to it by Section 218 (3) of the constitution. Had it been there, the ROs would not have behaved like loose canons and followed a prescribed template.
It states: “It shall be the duty of the Election Commission to organize and conduct the election and to make such arrangements as are necessary to ensure that the election is conducted honestly, justly, fairly and in accordance with law, and that corrupt practices are guarded against.” The ECP was even allowed to amend nomination papers on this pretext by the Supreme Court.
One reason why matters of financial propriety remained in the background was that it was far tougher for ROs to establish financial defaults etc than to grill candidates this way. Azhar says the perennial issues with sharing of databases and departments’ habit of guarding their closets makes simple process cumbersome.
The SBP had not shared data of defaulters by the time of scrutiny, NAB had expressed its inability to successfully probe cases before elections and vowed to pursue them even after polls, default on agricultural tax is yet to be recognized as default etc, he states.
On how candidates get a clean chit, he says they benefit from loopholes. For example, if the defaulters of amount of and above Rs2 million stand to be disqualified they prove the amount above this limit as disputed. For example, a person who has to pay Rs 2.1 million can get away if he can prove that an amount 0f 0.2 million is disputed.
Raza Rumi, a political analyst and head of Jinnah Institute, Islamabad says the ROs’ questions smacked of pre-conceived notions and ideological biases that run deep into the body politic of Pakistan. In the absence of a proper guideline issued by ECP, the scrutiny process became a free for all assessment, resulting in conflicting judgments.
“During the questioning, the intriguing emphasis on sexuality and private conduct of a candidate was witness which betrays well-entrenched mindset prevalent in the society,” he observes. He believes conviction and not hearsay or reputation should be basis of disqualification on moral grounds.
He laments the country lost a chance to weed out candidates who lack financial integrity. “Under the constitution, the important aspect for a candidate’s eligibility happens to be his or her financial integrity. Sadly, most ROs are not well-trained or lack capacity to handle these questions.”
Raza’s conclusion is that the over-emphasis on ideology and faith undermined the essential task of verifying the integrity aspects, specifically with reference to tax payment and loan defaults.
Hafiz Mohammad Yousaf, current council member and former vice president (north), Institute of Chartered Accountants of Pakistan, takes up issue with posers about moral values of a candidate. He believes morality comes with culture and one cannot foster moral values in isolation.
“Can clever answers from candidates rid the country of the label it got recently — of being home to a huge number of Internet surfers searching porn?”
On clean chit to alleged loan defaulters, Yousaf says there are procedural flaws which sometime help defaulters. However, he argues that everyone who has won relief from a bank is not a defaulter. Banks also do business with parties and in the capacity of partners they can agree on closures and settlements and this happens all over the world.
His point is that in Pakistan the rate of interest is too high and prospects of doing business diminishing day by day, translating into increasing ability of business entities to pay back loans and interests.
Yousaf, however, condemns the practice of willful defaults where loan seekers get their properties over-evaluated. When unable to pay loans they hand over the properties to banks and walk away with money much more in value than the price of the property, he says adding “such defaulters should never be spared.”
There are candidates who have won reprieve on grounds that the outstanding loan against them, in case of limited companies, is not the whole amount payable by the said company. They are responsible only for the amount proportional to the weightage of the shares they have in the company, he explains.
The writer is a journalist based in Lahore