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January 18, 2008

Dire warning


January 18, 2008

The interior ministry has told all politicians that they apparently face a very real risk of being blown up, or killed by other means, at any time while they are on the election trail. This piece of information is hardly likely to inject vigour into an electoral campaign, which, at any rate, appears to have died along with Benazir Bhutto at the end of last year. The interior ministry's dire warnings against the staging of large rallies, and its stringent advice regarding travel and security arrangements means that whatever pre-poll activities resume after the 10th day of Muharram, are likely to be subdued, with contestants asked to restrict themselves to corner meetings or gatherings within their constituencies. For these too, they have been asked to co-ordinate plans with district administrations.

The warnings in the first place underscore how grim the security situation is in the country. Even though the interior ministry can hardly be regarded as the most credible of organizations, especially since just weeks ago it had spoken of only 'several' leaders being on the militants' hit-list, the evidence of the scale of the terrorist threat is visible to everyone. The recent blasts in Lahore and Karachi have simply served to underline this point and the fact that, despite the claims to the contrary, there has been a marked worsening in the state of affairs over the past few years. The death of at least 2000 people last year in terrorist attacks provides evidence of the extent of this menace. The interior ministry has also made it clear that all political leaders are expected, more or less, to fend for themselves, by adopting the suggested precautions. In other words, the state apparatus no longer has the power to perform its' primary duty of protecting life.

The restrictions, quite obviously, will have an impact on the polls -- and quite possibly their results. For decades, mass public gatherings have provided the core spirit of election campaigns

in the country, with the turnouts also used as a means to gauge popularity. The removal of even this, admittedly crude, tool of assessment can only add to the many doubts that already exist over the impartiality of the polling process, since it makes it easier to manipulate the outcome. With politicians restricted to their own constituencies, the overall position of major parties becomes harder to estimate and results more difficult to predict. The restrictions also limit the ability of politicians to reach out to voters and establish direct contact with them. This after all is what the democratic process is all about. Also, the bar on big rallies will most affect parties with a deep-rooted tradition of lively gatherings addressed by top leaders. Heading this list must be the PPP, but also other parties, including the MQM, the ANP, the PML-N and smaller groups who lack funds and ability to stage media campaigns. Indeed, those able to reach people through television or print-media ads, in other words the wealthiest candidates, will be affected least. In this context, the argument that these restrictions tilt the scales in favour of the PML-Q is a reasonably strong one.

It is sad that the threat of violence in the country -- and the failure of previous governments to tackle it particularly since 2001 -- has now forced tough restrictions to be placed on the basic right of assembly. This right is of course of key significance to politicians everywhere in the world, particularly when elections lie around the corner. In the context of Pakistan, it is hard to envisage a campaign without the colour and energy that rallies bring to it and the latest words of warning from the government may mean that this time round the pre-poll situation will continue till the balloting day to display the lack of enthusiasm that has so far been its hallmark.

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