Islamabad, Pakistan – One day before a state of emergency was declared, a delegation with IRI concluded a mission assessing preparations for parliamentary elections.  The assessment was conducted with the firm conviction of the need for credible and transparent provincial and national elections, without which the full legitimacy of Pakistan’s government cannot be achieved.  During the eight-day mission, delegates reviewed the technical and political preparation for constitutionally mandated elections, which will provide a crucial roadmap to the return to democratic governance in Pakistan.

The declaration of emergency on November 3, 2007, is a significant setback to the restoration of democratic governance in Pakistan.  IRI’s public opinion research program has clearly proven the voters’ consistent desire for democratic governance, regardless of which political personality led in head-to-head, comparison polling.  Recent polls also showed that an overwhelming majority, 83 percent, of Pakistanis were opposed to a declaration of emergency.

The government of Pakistan’s most recent statement that elections will be held on time offers hope that the process towards democratization may be restored.  However, it is hard to imagine how elections conducted under a state of emergency could be considered free and fair.

Assessment Mission Findings

Despite rumors of a possible declaration of emergency prior to November 3, the delegation found a commitment on the part of civil society and political parties to democratic elections, even among those who identified a lack of a level playing field in the pre-election environment.  Political parties and the media did express concern that measures such as an emergency might be declared and elections delayed.  All expressed their intent to oppose such measures.

Prior to the emergency, an over-riding concern was the continued decline in law and order within Pakistan.  Potential candidates expressed fears as to their personal safety while they were electioneering; the media worried about the vulnerability of reporters and cameramen in carrying out their work to bring information to the public.  A general feeling of insecurity prevailed among most Pakistanis. The concerns of election period security did not, however, lead the majority of Pakistanis, with whom the assessment mission met, to concur with governmental decrees to limit or ban political rallies and gatherings.

Questions as to the capacity of the Electoral Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to meet electoral needs in a timely and objective manner were often raised with IRI’s delegation.  A consistent issue of concern was the accuracy of the official voter list and the possible exclusion of eligible voters.  In meetings with the commissioner and secretary of the ECP, as well as with provincial election officials, team members were informed of draft codes of conduct and regulation changes such as posting of balloting results. Formalizing and enforcing these draft rules of conduct would have significantly increased confidence in the pre-election preparations.

The ECP and the nation’s political parties continue to find it difficult to work together despite numerous attempts by various stakeholders to facilitate regular meetings on issues related to the conduct of the elections.  In February, IRI facilitated a one-day roundtable between political parties and the ECP to discuss election preparations.  A renewed commitment by the ECP to continue such meetings, irrespective of the timing of elections, is needed, as is the commitment by the political parties to set aside partisan rhetoric and make all attempts to work with the ECP and its provincial branches.

One important step in addressing both capacity and fairness of the ECP would be the expeditious appointment of neutral and qualified individuals to the two long-vacant spots remaining on the ECP.  This could be done in consultations with the political parties and civil society.

The delegation observed that the return of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto visibly energized her political movement and heard from several camps, not merely those of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, that the return of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif would be necessary to assure the public that elections would be conducted with a fair and transparent intent.

The assessment team noted the integral role played in the pre-election environment by Pakistan’s private media.  In particular, private television stations have been removed from the airwaves in the wake of the declaration of emergency.  It is essential that they be allowed to broadcast and be given full constitutional freedoms to report.  These outlets must rise above partisan or parochial interests and provide equal access to all parties and groups involved in this election.

The assessment team urges the nation’s political parties to come forward with political programs, or platforms, which will motivate the people of Pakistan to participate in elections when they are held. Parties should also spend time organizing their efforts and building coalitions where possible.

Scholars and political observers frequently identify national elections in 1970 as among the most free and transparent in Pakistan’s history.  Despite many issues which arose following those elections, it was a benchmark with one of Pakistan’s highest turnouts in 60 years.  A commitment by parties to run issue-based, rather than personality-centered, campaigns would hopefully break with the disastrous cycles of elections since 1970.

Recommendations as to the value of translucent ballot boxes or educational degrees required for candidate eligibility, while important, can be postponed until there is a commitment by the government to a return to the path of democratic governance.

The issuance of the emergency declaration in the form of the Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO) by the government of Pakistan clearly impacts the findings and recommendations of IRI’s assessment mission.  Some of the individuals who met with IRI during the course of the assessment are now under arrest or face the threat of detention.  Independent media, seen by the assessment mission as one of the positive strengths of the pre-election environment, is now being censored.  Political parties already challenged by a lack of level playing field will find it difficult if not impossible to rally supporters.

Restoring public, as well as international, confidence in the electoral process will be difficult but the urge among Pakistanis for democracy remains strong.  It is difficult to envision credible elections as possible without the full reversal of those actions imposed by the state of emergency.

Team members met with Pakistani government officials and representatives of political parties, civil society and media in Islamabad before deploying to Karachi, Lahore and Quetta.  A planned deployment to Peshawar, the fourth provincial capital of Pakistan, was postponed due to security concerns.  In the provincial capitals, team members met with local leadership of 12 political parties, media and government officials.

Mission team members were Dr. Marvin Weinbaum, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Illinois and Scholar-in-Residence at the Middle East Institute; Joanna Levison, former State Department employee with the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor; Larry Halloran, Minority Deputy Staff Director for the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform; and Brian Joseph, South and Southeast Asia Director for the National Endowment for Democracy.

The team also included IRI staff members Tom Garrett, Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa; Rob Varsalone, Resident Country Director for Pakistan; Omar Alvi, Pakistan Program Officer; Steve Cima, Resident Program Officer; Jamie Tronnes, Resident Program Officer; Tariq Junaid, Project Manager; and John Dwyer, Long-term Observer Coordinator. 

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