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June 4, 2018
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Terms of fairness

Opinion

June 4, 2018

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Last week was certainly momentous week, with the culmination of an elected government’s constitutional term in office and the formal installation of the caretaker prime minister last Friday.

To add to this excitement, the Supreme Court of Pakistan overturned the decision of the Islamabad High Court to disqualify PML-N leader and former foreign minister Khawaja Asif for life. So he can now contest the upcoming elections.

In that sense, last Friday’s endings and beginnings projected a silver lining because the choice of Justice (r) Nasirul Mulk has widely been commended and he has assured that the election will be timely and transparent. For me, what is inspiring is that according to reports, as a judge he never lost his temper.

But we cannot ignore the fact that every silver lining has a dark cloud. And the cloud that has hovered above Pakistan’s political landscape has particularly been thick and impenetrable. Incidentally, the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (Pildat) released a report that says the pre-poll process had so far been unfair. This independent observation should be carefully examined and, because of the respect and credibility that Pildat has earned as a think-tank, its pronouncements deserve a debate. The election should be not only held in a free and fair manner but should also be seen, in popular perception, to being held in a free and fair manner.

Sadly, the discussions in the Pildat report prompted in a number of talk shows on our news channels were brazenly partisan – from both sides of the political divide. What these talk shows have provoked in the context of the prevailing political discourse is truly lamentable. It would be pertinent to examine the possible impact of the inane talk shows our electronic media is awash with on the formation of legitimate public opinion. Apparently, an excessive exposure to such fare would debilitate the minds of the viewers.

There are roughly one hundred talk shows on offer every day – in a society that is partly illiterate and broadly averse to the written word. One natural outcome is that there are many panelists who circulate in these shows, chewing the cud of their half-baked and factually suspect interpretations of current affairs. It is really quite ridiculous.

The parameters that have received the highest scores in terms of providing the required level-playing field to all for a free and fair election relate to the election management body – the Election Commission of Pakistan – charged with the constitutional responsibility of holding elections.

Based on the assessment of perception of fairness of the pre-electoral process, Pildat believes that if the current trend of perception of unfairness continues, the prospects for fairness of the remaining phases of the electoral process will also be jeopardised.

This is a forbidding thought and we will have to see if the caretakers are able to introduce measures that are meant to correct the balance. Meanwhile, we will also have to contend with the political upheavals that have been recorded in recent weeks. We have been watching defections of the species labeled as ‘electables’ from one party to another – mostly from the PML-N to Imran Khan’s PTI.

This flow sometimes looks farcical and there was an instance this week that exposes, in a shockingly tragic manner, the PTI’s thoughtless policy of embracing any new entrant who looks and seems influential. Hence the abominable episode of Farooq Bandial. It is incredible that no one in the PTI was aware of who he was (when the entire business of accepting an applicant rests on knowing who he or she was). He was photographed with Imran Khan with the announcement that he had joined the PTI. Immediately, both traditional and social media discovered Farooq Bandial’s grossly criminal past; it took a few hours for the PTI to own the blunder and expel him from the party.

There was another serious blow to the reputation of the PTI and to the capacity of its leadership to take decisions when the party reneged on its nominee as the caretaker chief minister of Punjab, after the name had been accepted by the PML-N and even announced. Now, if these things do not matter to the electorate then we may have some doubts about the very practice of democracy in Pakistan.

This thought relates to how the collective mind is shaped by ideas and images that are circulated in public space. I have alluded to the imbecility of talk shows, with a few exceptions. One should also look at how political leaders and parties communicate with the public at large. In this respect, the PTI will not be the only culprit. All parties resort to jingoism and subterfuge, with varying intensity. This situation will not improve when there is little scope for reasoned and broad-minded debate in any forum.

The writer is a senior journalist.

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