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Opinion

March 9, 2015

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When polls create new pitfalls

One can make a reasonably strong argument that without the hue and cry over the buying and selling of votes that preceded the Senate elections, corrupt candidates could have come into the upper house. It is also a smart thing to say that because there was so much media focus, instigated by political leaders from all parties, on the likelihood of vast corruption defiling this democratic exercise, the money-peddling mafia could not exercise its traditional influence and, as a result, the polls were conducted in a fairly respectable manner, yielding results that, by and large, were expected by the parties. Indeed many political figures have resorted to this logic. They have suggested that by shouting from the rooftop about corruption they have forced ‘free and fair’ elections.
However, beyond such self-serving explanations and the good-to-hear impact these create, it is impossible to quantify how many seedy senators have been actually filtered out through this ‘pre-emptive strike’. Just as impossible is it to boil down to hard numbers the money that allegedly would have exchanged hands in order to hijack the whole process. Was it millions? Billions? Trillions? We don’t know. We would have known if those who raised a storm over the robust market of corruption being set up to manipulate Senate polls had named anyone with supporting evidence to establish the sweeping nature of their charge sheet.
Imran Khan had the opportunity to point to one such black sheep when he gave a figure of Rs150 million coming his way for a Senate ticket only to be emphatically rejected by him; but even he chose to pass the opportunity and instead labelled the man who allegedly offered the bribe a “good man”. He again refused to name the person in the post-polls presser though he had plenty of time to pour sizzling scorn over other parties for indulging in “conscience selling” – the stock-in-trade phrase he has in his handy kit of free-flowing mud to trash his

opponents.
The dark characterisation of Senate elections continued even after the polls in spite of the fact that other than the PPP gain of a senator in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and PML-N loss of two in Balochistan, every party got its due share from the 52-seat contest. Speaking to the media after becoming the Jamaat-e-Islami’s sole senator in the house, the amir of the party Sirajul Haq congratulated the masses because the politics of money had been “buried”. He offered no empirical evidence of the existence of the David who had killed the Goliath of money-politics, nor pointed to the valley where the epic battle between right and wrong had taken place.
So for all intent and purposes, the despicable ‘cash prizes’ that were to be the weapons of the ticket-purchasing mafia out to derail Senate elections, remain, along with their wielders, a bit like those mythical creatures that everyone talks about endlessly but no one has ever seen. It would be fantastic if these characters could be fleshed out so that they are fished out of the pond. If we know who the potential perpetrators of this large-scale crime against democracy were, the nation could shame them into oblivion. Or the law could put them behind bars.
But till such time – and it will be a long time – that anyone gathers the moral courage (or hard evidence) to back up these allegations, we have to focus on something quantifiable: the fall-out of this incredibly potent folklore of corruption that has accompanied the new senators’ arrival in the august house.
Thanks to the pre-poll campaign about wheels being greased and seats being sold, now the entire exercise looks lowly, defiled, and belonging to that genre of politics that evokes no respect, only derision and contempt.
Some media houses chose to be righteous instead of being right. They expanded this image of rigged Senate elections into an unquestionable reality projecting it onto a public that is already convinced that the entire system is rotten to the core. One channel thought it appropriate to hover cameras around a donkey – a tenacious beast of burden, but socially an unfortunate symbol of ridicule for its unquestioning loyalty to whoever commands the stick or offers the carrot – in order to catch the allegedly sold-out spirit of Senate elections.
But then such media imagery was only a sad aftermath of the tsunami of damning indictments issued by political leaders themselves. The lead role was Imran Khan’s but others did not stay behind. Saad Rafique from the PML-N justified the midnight-jackal-attack like presidential order that changed election rules for Fata members on the grounds that this was meant to prevent a particular group from “bidding for seats with billions”.
Why should political parties have pushed boulders of shame upon a system they themselves are part of is not hard to understand. The PTI was dealing with a deep crisis of party loyalty in KP – the bitter fruit of Imran Khan’s strategy to use Peshawar as a pawn to win Islamabad and capture Lahore. PTI members were extremely angry and could not be trusted with their choices. Softening them with the threat of dissolution of the assembly and putting them under the pressure of being declared corrupt villains in case they voted for other candidates was the only way they could be kept in line. The PTI’s show-me-the-vote-to-verify-my-trust ploy was, more than anything else, a screaming admission of its internal chaos.
The PML-N had similar issues in Balochistan and KP. Punjab too would have revolted in a big way if it weren’t for the tyranny of the majority that the party commanded there. But even then having the MPs on a tight leash required the party to pull every trick in the trade of coercion and cooption.
The PPP’s case was slightly different. Having settled matters amicably with the MQM in Sindh, it was perfectly placed to dangle carrots before vulnerable victims in Fata and KP. That was why the PPP leadership was the least voluble in accusing ‘lobbies’ of malpractices. And if there was a lobby buying votes it was probably favourably inclined towards the PPP rather than working against it. However, since it grabbed everyone’s attention to join the votes-for-sale chorus, the PPP, to be politically correct, chimed in to level similar charges.
The result could then only be what it is: collectively these Senate elections are believed to be the most controversial in the history of the country even though individually every party is claiming that its Senators are most cleanly elected. (It is amusing to hear Imran Khan lionise PTI MPs as moral men and women who resisted temptations. This is the same lot of MPs that the PTI chairman had threatened before the elections with all sorts of dire consequences because he feared a breakdown of their moral code.)
This damage looks particularly troubling when stretched against the background of a consistent campaign to nullify the results of 2013 elections. Now even if the PTI returns to the National Assembly (there is little reason left for it to stay out) both houses of parliament stand defamed. While fighting and curbing corruption is a worthy cause, especially in a system where the problem exists in a structural form, the current debate has opened the entire system to the risk of further demonisation and dwindling public trust.
The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV.
Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @TalatHussain12

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