The allegations of poll rigging are getting louder as Pakistan approaches the Feb 18, 2008 parliamentary elections. When you hear the opposition politicians, particularly from PPP and PML-N, describe the details of alleged rigging in Pakistani and world media, it seems that they have a great deal of personal knowledge and expertise in
this specialty, the kind of depth that can only come from having engaged in it for themselves. I am writing this blog post to try and explain the crux of the issue as I understand it.
ISI Political Cell
As I read through a lot of material in my quest for the answers, what caught my eye was a PPP report alleging that "Military Intelligence sits in the offices of returning officers, police officials and other elections officials." The question is: What does the military intelligence have to do with organizing elections? To find the answer, I had to go as far back as 1975 when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto ruled the country with an iron hand under emergency rules. Talking about ISI's role in Pakistani elections, former ISI chief Gen. Hamid Gul recently said in an interview to Tehelka.com, " The ISI has played an important role and it has in its charter — through a prime ministerial decree signed by Zulfiqar Bhutto — a political cell, so the politicians are at fault and the Army chief and his coterie of generals are at fault."
It was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who issued the executive order creating a political cell within the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) with the purpose of influencing political processes in Pakistan. This fateful decision eventually brought ZA Bhutto's own downfall when he used this cell to unnecessarily rig the 1977 elections and was overthrown and executed by General Zia-ul-Haq. It was also this cell that helped Nawaz Sharif , a protege of General Zia-ul-Haq, get elected as Prime Minister of Pakistan after the General's death in a mysterious air crash followed by a brief term in office by Benazir Bhutto. In 1990 the ISI received 140m rupees (US$2.2m at current values) to rig national elections, according to supreme court testimony by the then chief of army staff, General Mirza Aslam Beg.
Described aptly as "Bhutto Legacy" by Pakistani newspaper Dawn's columnist Mr. Aredeshir Cowasjee, this political cell in the ISI continues to exist and it is still being used by the pro-government politicians to influence the outcome of the elections. Recently, Chaudhry Shujaat Husain of PML-Q, argued that this cell should continue working. Obviously, the opposition politicians want it disbanded, as long as they can not use it to their advantage.
In terms of the specific allegations such as ghost polling stations, ballot stuffing, counting irregularities, etc, each of these are rebutted effectively by Staffan Darnolf, Pakistan country director of IFES
with lots of experience in elections in developing nations. Responding to a blog post by Barnett Ruben
, Staffan wrote: "In this article you mentioned that the elections are likely to be rigged with the assistance of ISI and district administration as “[t]hese ballots, already printed, filled out, and prepared, are then added to those transported from polling places for the final count.” Could you elaborate a bit more here, as I simply don’t understand your argument. The reason being that no central counting of ballot papers take place. The ballot boxes are opened at the polling stations and the ballot papers are counted at the individual polling stations.
On ghost polling stations, Staffan says: "What my argument boils down to is that this notion of ghost polling stations is a red herring. Why go through this huge exercise involving thousands of people to try to siphon off ballot papers, get your hands on ballot boxes, security seals, the right stamps, the original forms, prep the ballot papers and then have them sent to the Returning Officers' premises where no counting of the ballots are taking place? Also, how do you produce faked voters list for these ghost polling stations now when the voters lists are computerized and can be easily verified?"
Staffan goes on: "To me, this seems as far-fetched as the allegation by some political parties in late November and the first week of December stating that 108 Punjab NA constituencies had been selected for rigging, as the ruling party's representatives had already received 20-30K (the reported number varied) extra ballot papers for stuffing. The problem with this accusation is that candidate nomination only ended on Dec 15. And before that no one knows which parties and candidates will actually run for office. Hence, it is only on December 16th that the final design of the real ballots are known and they can be produced for any of the 849 directly elected constituencies."
While specific allegations are rebutted well, just the existence of the ISI cell creates doubt as to the fairness of the polls in Pakistan.
Disband ISI Cell
Given the acknowledged existence of this political cell within ISI, can we expect any confidence in the results of the upcoming elections? The answer is clearly NO. Would such a cell give the losers the justification to launch mass protests, even if the elections are largely free and fair? The answer is clearly YES. I think it would be in the best interest of the nation if all politicians and generals agree to disband this ISI cell to make sure the elections are, in fact, free and fair and seen to be completely free, fair and transparent.