By Afzal Khan
The decision to postpone elections was on the cards the day after assassination of Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto when top leadership of PML-Q had met the President. The Election Commission acted as was expected. That it took three days to decide and announce the decision is a faint attempt at subterfuge.
The commission and the President cited identical reasons for the delay they said had become inevitable because of law and order situation and the administrative problems faced by the commission. The Sindh chief secretary said law and order situation was bad while the Punjab government cited tense conditions to recommend postponement. Caretaker interior minister on the other hand has been trumpeting for last three days that the situation has almost calmed down since the army was deployed after three days of rioting, arson and looting.
The President painted weird picture of the havoc wreaked on state and private assets because of the lawlessness that prevailed during first three days. But, as in case of Karachi carnage of May 12, he failed to explain the government strategy to silently watch the destruction being wrought in Sindh before the army was called out. A situation was deliberately allowed to worsen and has now been cited as alibi for postponement of elections.
The Election Commission has catalogued the havoc played to its offices in 11 districts in Sindh but did not acknowledge that this material could be quickly replaced. The excuse that the printing of ballot papers remained suspended for four days is blatantly incorrect. First, the printing press was closed for three days from Friday to Sunday that included one holiday. Second, there was no rioting or arson in Islamabad. And above all the chairman of the highly protected state-run printing press is told a TV channel on Wednesday that it had already completed the task by printing 120 million ballot papers which are ready to be dispatched within two days. The remaining 40 million were printed in Karachi.
The commission deliberately wasted three days before announcing the final decision. On Monday it asked provincial chief secretaries to send law and order reports. Next day its meeting was adjourned to consult political parties. On Wednesday evening the Chief Election Commission meekly made brief announcements. He looked pathetic while fielding a couple of questions during the chaotic news conference before ending it abruptly.
It is good that the President has finally agreed to allow foreign experts from Scotland Yard to assist Pakistani investigators albeit under international pressure. It is, however, too little and too late. He had contemptuously rejected Benazir’s demand for foreign assistance in the probe on October 12 massacre in Karachi. The PPP is asking for a wholesome investigation under UN auspices on the pattern of Rafique Hariri’s probe that would have covered all aspects of the tragedy including direct and indirect responsibility of the government. Scotland Yard experts will only provide some technical forensic expertise to Pakistani investigators. Already there are reports that much of the evidence has been destroyed.
As always the President blamed media for creating confusion about the circumstances surrounding Ms. Bhutto’s murder. He has complained of video footage shown by domestic and foreign media, not recognizing that this evidence is invaluable in tracing the perpetrators of the grisly assassination. If there was any confusion, it emanated from the conflicting and changing versions dished out by the government on daily basis.
The President has also conveniently skipped the most crucial part of the ghastly episode- not just inadequacy but complete and mysterious absence of the security provided to Ms. Bhutto at the time of the murder. He had earlier stonewalled all her requests to allow her credible security arrangements because of high risk involved. The ordinary police escort during her campaign was meager and not even trained to avert any assault,
Musharraf adopted a threatening and commanding tone for most of his speech. He talked about ‘instructing” the Prime Minister to do this and that. The warning that any agitation, irrespective of its being peaceful and within bounds of law, would be crushed was ostensibly directed towards lawyers, civil society activists and the APDM who are struggling for reversal of the most blatant assault on the constitution, the judiciary and the media in the guise of emergency.
He has promised to deploy army, rangers and police in the entire country till the elections and even beyond to maintain law and order. This is a laudable objective and nobody would like to see the disruption of law and order. But the judges and lawyers who have been kept under detention are law abiding citizens. To threaten them with the use of army is preposterous. Ms. Bhutto had demanded that the elections be supervised by the army. She had, apparently, hoped that, since Musharraf has quit the army, his ability to use it for manipulating results had been severely curtailed.
Instead it is being deployed as warning to those engaged in peaceful protest.
The postponement of elections is a ploy to rob the PPP of the sympathy vote it expected to receive. In fifty days Musharraf and his allies hope this tide to subside. The spotlight will shift to its new leadership. Chaudhry Pervez Elahi seems to acquired fresh vigour after the postponement and lobbed the first salvo against Asif Zardari with vengeance. He has used even Punjab card picking up a hint from Musharraf’s speech. PPP spokesman Farhatullah Babar had vowed to resist the postponement a couple of hours ahead of the EC announcement. But the final message from Naudero was just the opposite.