Tuesday, November 23

Tall claims, vital fumbles

AAMER WAQAS CH looks at various assumptions put forward by the opposition parties about the turnout in the referendum and role played by the Nazims and pro-government political parties

When General Pervez Musharraf launched his campaign for the referendum, his mainstay were the Nazims and smaller political parties supporting his effort to become the President for five years. The General won the referendum with an over-whelming majority supporting him, as it was pre-conceived.

The Nazims, with few exceptions, worked as the state functionaries for marshalling voters and the pro-referendum political parties did show their presence through banners and attending the rallies. But when the turn-out of voters is considered, disparities arise between the numbers given by the government and the opposition parties. The latter claim that their judgement arises from the ground realities on the referendum day. If their assertion is considered to be valid, then the question arises - what contribution these pro-referendum parties made on April 30? It also gives rise to some doubts about their real prospects as political parties, which can play an important role in the post-referendum scenario.

The role of the smaller parties should be seen in the context of the government's decision to deprive two major political parties (PPP and PML-N) off their leaders and drawing support from the second tier of leadership of these parties. The first obvious advantage to be derived by smaller parties was the media coverage and exposure by the government agencies. Their identification with the President's rule in future could have accommodated them a niche in the future political set up, which they had failed to get in the last general elections. Having hitched themselves to the government's bandwagon, it was expected of them to help the General to win the referendum. To what extent that help materialised or became effective, is a matter can be speculated about. At least two of the pro-government parties, the Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) of Allama Tahir-ul-Qadri and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), and Tehreek-e-Istaqlal of Air Marshal (Retd) Asghar Khan did contest the last parliamentary elections, but could not win even a single seat.

Two new additions, splinter group of ANP (Ajmal Khattak) and Millat Party have also joined this group of parties. The smaller parties in opposition, Jama'at-e-Islami, various factions of Jamiat Ulema Islam and Jamiat Ulema Pakistan; somewhat large but regional parties, MQM and ANP, all these in varying degrees had negative role in the referendum. Initially, the MQM was supportive of Pervez Musharraf's role, but did not agree with the candidature of his being the president. MQM's change of heart, at the last moment, was probably because of the reason that Pervez Musharraf's did not condemn two killings of MQM's workers. It is not clear whether it was strategical on their part on account of its possible future alliance in Sindh with a party winning majority. They may have considered if the Pakistan People's Party wins or becomes a larger winner in a hung provincial assembly, then they can forge alliance with them to form government in Sindh. If MQM would have joined the government, then they would not been in a position of devising such an alliance in the province.

After positions having been taken by all the political and religious parties for or against the government at the time of the referendum, it was mainly left to pro-government parties to bring voters out. The biggest pro-government party, the Pakistan Muslim League (QA) and Nazims, whose interest was on the side of government, had therefore to play their part. Proviso that there were some Nazims with stronger affiliations with their parties - in the Punjab, Nazim of Multan Shah Mahmood Qureshi; from Sindh, Nazim of Jama'at-e-Islami Naimat Ullah Khan - were not in the field to support the government's cause. Therefore, it is entirely true that all district governments were marshalling the voters including Lahore's Nazim Mian Amir Mahmood.

On the other hand, Pervez Musharraf's cabinet ministers, all the four governors and district machinery of Nazims, did help the government. There are two dramatically opposed views. The government's spokesmen and Nazims had issued euphonic statements of voter turnout calling it unprecedented in the history of Pakistan. The opposition parties termed it the lowest even to Zia - the whole show was deemed as a 'flop' one; 'vote of no-confidence by the silent majority' - and had asked Pervez Musharraf to step down. The foreign media, though paid lesser attention, also tilted towards the opposition's view, hinted at low turnout. The truth of the assessment is to be determined even though the Election Commission's result alludes to an altogether different picture, but the reality is that General Musharraf has become the president of Pakistan for the next five years - his tenure ending in October 2007.

In the meantime, the Election Commissioner Justice (Retd) Irshad Hassan Khan and his team, comprising of four serving judges from four province, had officially announced referendum result along with his claim that the referendum was held in an open, transparent and free manner. According to him, the voter turnout was about 70 per cent, which is far more than the opposition is willing to concede. The only reason of arriving at this figure, that can be contested about this percentage, is that this value has been worked out on the basis of existing voters' list or other imaginary calculations. If it was worked out on the basis of the existing voters' list, then turn out would be probably proportionate to the government's professed number.

But actually, the large number of votes, whose name were not in the voters' list, they had attained voter's status after the lists were compiled. If this factor is taken into account, the percentage of the turnout would probably be in the range of 60 per cent or so. But the opposition has also objected that they were large number of multiple votes by an individual as various instances being cited in the Press. If this point is conceded, then the real turnout would probably be less then 60 per cent. But even if that figure is reduced further, it would still remain above 50 per cent and can hardly be compared with two per cent turnout on which the opposition parties are insisting on.

The same day, in a PTV programme when the Election Commissioner spoke as well, also showed Afsand Yarwali of ANP maintaining that the turnout was fairly large in NWFP. His view carry some weight considering the fact that he personally boycotted the referendum. Surprisingly, the figure given by the Election Commission, is also comparatively smaller in number as the negative votes were still 883,676. Added this number to that of the opposition parties boycotted votes, it could have risen to at least a couple of crores even if the 'yes' vote of more than four crores would have been hard to match. The perception emerging from newspaper reports is that the turnout has been on the lower side. This hints at the possibility that smaller pro-government parties may not have been able to bring the voters out. If so, their chances of getting votes in the elections looks grim at the parliamentary polls. Divergent reasons can be attributed to this opinion. Personal popularity, if any, of Farooq Leghari, Imran Khan and Allama Tahir-ul-Qadri is not located in a specific location except for the former president Farooq Leghari's appeal in his home district.

Tahir-ul-Qadri and Imran Khan may have supporters in all areas, but spread out in such a manner that would not help them win an election. The same happened in the last parliamentary elections and this is not a far-fetched comparison for October elections too. What these leaders have gained in media because of the government's patronage, is hard to weigh at this juncture. The role of the PML (QA) is different in the sense that even they have been supportive of Pervez Musharraf, they still some access to the political leaders of the other factions of the PML. That does not mean, of course, they can win outright majority in October elections because the fight would be fierce and bitter considering the fact that the opposition parties can forge an alliance against the pro-government parties. The chances of two regional parties, MQM and ANP emerging as fairly strong group in their own areas, could tilt the balance either way. The chances of religious parties, particularly JUI, winning some seats in NWFP and Balochsitan, are there because their support in these areas has not eroded. Whether the opposition against the government by the leadership of Jama'at-e-Islami pays any dividends, still remains to be seen.

To minimise the role of the smaller parties in the coming elections, would not be wise provided the candidates put up by them are intelligently selected and convassing in their favour done through a popular appeal. The country-wide network of PTI and Millat Party is tenuous and unreliable. They have not even started enrolment, which is a dreadful weakness that its leaders would not be able to overcome till the October elections. Some opposition members have said that they were going to challenge the result in the Supreme Court. How far the apex Court would come to their rescue, would remain another petition-of-little-value till 'the silent majority' and politicians ask Pervez Musharraf to step down.

Area-wise break-up:
Area Votes polled 'YES' 'NO'
Islamabad 211,740 194,934 15,417
Punjab 25,933,136 25,300,819 492,177
Sindh 10,423,646 10,144,209 188,899
NWFP 3,832,426 3,705,991 104,550
Balochistan 2,615,753 2,554,848 39,143
FATA 767,719 722,715 38,980
Overseas Pakistanis 186,530 180,823 4,510
Grand Total 43,970,950 42,804,339 883,676

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