Pakistan Vets Politicians With Koran Recitals as Poll ApproachesHaris Anwar and Augustine Anthony
Pakistani politicians are facing unprecedented scrutiny ahead of next month’s elections with poll officials asking them to recite Koranic verses and prove the authenticity of college qualifications in order to contest.
In a process that has drawn criticism of the independent Election Commission, returning officers in each constituency, many of them members of the judiciary or civil servants, have been told to weed out potential candidates not of “integrity and honesty,” or who fail to display a decent knowledge of Islam. Both are required by constitutional clauses drawn up by a military dictator yet never before applied.
Among those rejected for the May 11 ballot to the 342-member lower house is a newspaper columnist and lawmaker in the parliament dissolved last month who allegedly praised the quality of the alcohol served at a deceased friend’s home in Pakistan, where drinking liquor is illegal for Muslims. Local media, including the Dawn newspaper, have published accounts and photographs of candidates being asked to quote from memory holy scripture in order to prove their religious credentials.
“The candidates should have adequate knowledge of Islam,” Ishtiaq Ahmad Khan, secretary of the Election Commission, said April 5 in Islamabad. “The officers are asking these questions because it is required by the law.”
The drive is being led by Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, who told the judiciary last week that those taking part in election duty must ensure candidates fulfill the constitutional requirements of being upright citizens and adhering to the nation’s Islamic ideology. Disenchantment with elected representatives runs deep in Pakistan, with about 70 percent of 18-29 year olds surveyed by the British Council this month having an unfavorable view of political parties.
The Election Commission has formed nine tribunals, headed by high court judges, to hear appeals against the decisions of the returning officers, according to its website. They have to rule by April 17. A final list of candidates, out of the 8,072 who filed nomination papers, will be released April 19.
At the center of the tussle are two sections of the constitution adopted decades ago yet which have never before been used ahead of elections. Articles 62 and 63 were introduced by former military Zia-ul-Haq, who died in an airplane crash in 1988, as part of his campaign to make Pakistan a more overtly Islamic country. They state that candidates should be “sagacious, righteous and non-profligate, honest and ameen,” or faithful.
Zohra Yusuf, chairwoman of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said the clauses provide a poor guide to a candidate’s religious beliefs, and are not being applied impartially.
“This is the first time this is being used in this way,” Yusuf said in a phone interview yesterday. “It has really become more like a witch-hunt.” Voters alone should be allowed to decide who they want in parliament, she said.
Among those so far rejected are Raja Pervez Ashraf, the prime minister of the outgoing government, who was disqualified for alleged corruption, charges the nation’s top graft fighting body had earlier said could not be sustained based on available evidence.
Ayaz Amir, the columnist barred for alluding to drinking in a newspaper article, vowed to challenge his disqualification. “This whole process is absurd and ridiculous,” he said in an April 5 interview.
Former military dictator Pervez Musharraf, who returned from exile last month, was prevented from standing in three constituencies while being approved to run in a fourth.
The May election will mark a landmark for civilian rule in Pakistan after the coalition government led by President Asif Ali Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party became the first elected administration to complete its five-year term and prepare to transfer power through a ballot.
Chaudhry, who was ousted as chief justice by Musharraf in 2007 and reappointed by Zardari two years later, has been criticized by lawyers including Asma Jehangir, former chief of the country’s human rights commission, for what they called politically motivated actions.
In April last year, his court ousted Yousuf Raza Gilani as prime minister after he refused to seek the reopening of Swiss corruption investigations that had implicated Zardari. It then issued an arrest warrant for Gilani’s successor, Ashraf, amid a major march on Islamabad by a popular cleric demanding changes to election laws.
“The future of the nation depends upon the outcome of the electoral process and the election of more capable and better candidates to represent the nation,” Chaudhry told the judiciary April 7 in an address posted on the Supreme Court’s website. “You must meet the expectations of the public in general and judiciary in specific and utilize all your abilities to ensure transparent elections.”
Mudassar Rizvi, chief executive officer of the Free and Fair Election Network, a coalition of 30 non-governmental organizations that’s observing preparations for the polls, said that vetting officers were compromising the fair selection of candidates.
“Any effort to influence the process by any other institution than the Election Commission is interference in the electoral process,” he said in a phone interview in Islamabad yesterday, referring to the chief justice’s intervention.
More than 100 lawmakers in the previous parliament were required to verify their educational qualifications after allegations they faked certificates to fulfill a law compelling candidates to hold at least a bachelor’s degree, according to Chaudhry. The requirement has since been scrapped.
The Election Commission April 7 ruled that degrees held by 11 former lawmakers weren’t authentic and ordered criminal proceedings, according to its website.