By Rahimullah Yusufzai
Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani has used every available opportunity in recent days and weeks to emphasize that the Pakistan Army would have no role in the electoral process except maintaining law and order. At the 106th Corps Commanders Conference in Rawalpindi on February 7, he reiterated his resolve that the army as part of its constitutional obligations would come to the aid of the civil administration in case of need to ensure security during the elections.
More importantly, the army chief made it clear that holding free and fair elections was the sole responsibility of the Election Commission of Pakistan. This has been his message time and again and it seems to be a conscious effort on his part to keep the army out of any controversy in case something goes wrong in terms of the outcome of the elections. With opposition political parties and many Pakistanis publicly voicing concern about the polls being rigged, it is sensible for General Kayani to make everybody understand that the army's role is confined to providing security to the electoral exercise by deploying troops outside the polling stations. In the process, he is also making it obvious that whatever goes on inside the polling stations, and it includes compiling and declaring the results, is none of the army's business.
With the army distancing itself from the electoral process, the onus of responsibility for ensuring free and fair elections has thus fallen on the Election Commission. In any case, this is how it should have been in the first place. Sadly enough, the Election Commission was never allowed to independently perform its role and hold polls that are truly free and credible. Besides, the Election Commission in many instances has refrained from using the powers it possessed to ensure transparent polls. Almost every chief election commissioner has earned criticism rather than praise after conducting elections for the assemblies or local government. The present incumbent, Justice (r) Qazi Mohammad Farooq Pasha, too appears destined to fall into the same category. Pulling former judges out of retirement and obscurity and appointing them chief election commissioner has been the standard practice of our rulers wanting to manipulate the polls. Retired people too are forever seeking good jobs and some are tempted to accept any offer made to them by the powers that be. Justice Farooq Pasha too had retired as judge of the Supreme Court of Pakistan when he was appointed to the lucrative post. He had an honest reputation as judge but the job that he now holds is both challenging and controversial in nature. It would be a miracle if he came out unscathed and above controversy after presiding the February 18 general elections.
For sure, General Kayani is aware of the controversies that Pakistani elections generate. That is the primary reason for him to dissociate his soldiers from the electoral process. It is also possible that Kayani has had a premonition that the outcome of the polls may not be acceptable to opposition parties and this has prompted him to keep the army out of the electoral arena. After all, those opposed to President General (r) Pervez Musharraf and his political allies are busy complaining to the Election Commission about pre-poll rigging by the PML-Q, its allied parties and the inappropriately named caretaker government without getting any satisfactory answers. These complaints are piling up and so are fears about the elections being rigged. Some of these complaints may be groundless but a partisan president who had publicly campaigned for PML-Q-led coalition is bound to provoke political rivals to suspect foul-play and raise hue and cry even before the first vote has been polled.
However, the army could still find itself at the centre of controversy if the elections are rigged. Expectations from the armed forces have risen following the change of command at the General Headquarters (GHQ) and the appointment of a new army chief in place of General (r) Musharraf. Some people expect the army to ensure the sanctity of the ballot and respect for the choices made by the voters at the polling booths. Out of habit or due to the realization that the army is the most powerful institution in the country, politicians have also been appealing to General Kayani to do certain things that would amount to meddling in politics.
Qazi Hussain Ahmad has appealed to the army chief to pull out of the National Security Council while Imran Khan, who like the JI leader is also boycotting the elections, wants General Kayani to rectify all the illegal and unjust measures undertaken by General (r) Musharraf when he was the chief of Army Staff. Maybe they are appealing to the right person to undo wrongs committed by the former army chief. But such a move would also have political consequences as it could undermine the position of President Musharraf and insert an element of uncertainty into our already fragile state of affairs. It reminds one of the great expectations that the nation placed in deposed Chief Justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, following his reinstatement by a bench of the Supreme Court. Litigants, mostly politicians, flocked to his court and undue pressure was put on him and other judges to decide petitions that were clearly meant to weaken General Musharraf and undo some of his controversial decisions. Alarmed, the general struck and even took unconstitutional steps like imposing emergency rule and sacking 55 superior courts judges to tackle those challenging his authority.
There is no doubt that the army's reputation suffered when Musharraf dragged it into politics. He used his authority as chief of Army Staff to stage a coup against the democratically elected prime minister Nawaz Sharif and install himself first as chief executive of the country and then its uniformed president. The army also came in for criticism when General Musharraf held an incredible referendum to seek election as president of Pakistan and got his corps commanders to sit on stage with him in uniform while speaking at public meetings held under security provided by his troops. One remembers being refused permission by gun-toting soldiers from leaving the stadium where one such vote-seeking referendum rally was staged in Peshawar until their general Sahib, dressed in civvies and wearing shalwar-qameez, waistcoat and turban to appease the Pashtuns, finished his speech. The spectacle was clearly meant to remind the people that the army was fully behind the general and was part of his mission to seek political office while still in uniform.
The situation has changed and the few steps that General Kayani has taken to reduce the army's intrusion into politics has already won him goodwill among the masses and whetted their appetite for more. The decision to recall serving soldiers from civilian jobs and his orders to military officers not to meet politicians have been widely welcomed. These measures are certainly a rebuke to his predecessor because General (r) Musharraf had facilitated the appointment of serving army officers on prized civilian jobs. He had also encouraged interaction between the military officials and politicians by holding a political office while wearing the general's uniform. By undoing those decisions, General Kayani has acted like a professional soldier and one hopes further steps would be taken to ensure that the armed forces perform the task assigned to them. That task is defending the country's borders and ensuring its integrity.
The writer is executive editor of The News International based in Peshawar. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org