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Elections versus democracy

05 February, 2008

Is staging elections the same thing as promoting democracy and respecting human rights? No, says the Human Rights Watch in its latest annual report. And that puts the Watch's perception at variance with the standard set by the Western democracies.

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"It's now too easy for autocrats to get away with mounting a sham democracy", adds the HRW's Executive Director, Kenneth Roth, in a statement released with the report. Among the countries named as major violators of democratic credentials in 2007 Pakistan is second after Kenya in the company of Nigeria, Russia and Saudi Arabia.

The report also enlists Pakistan, along with the United States, Britain and France, among the countries who committed human rights violations in the name of fighting the 'war on terror'. Rightly then President Musharraf's statements made in European capitals during his recent tour, conforms to the truth in the HRW's verdict.

His message that 'don't look at us through your prism, it took you centuries to perfect democratic process and that you are unduly 'possessed' of human rights in Pakistan,' was what they wanted to hear. So they must have said 'the president was right and that the judges' issue could wait.'

Historically, human rights and democracy took a back seat whenever the Western governments found them clashing with their national interest. In fact, these are the members of civil society that keep aloft the banner of human rights, people's freedom and their dignity, in pursuance of their conviction that the individual comes before the state. No where does this divergence in approaches appear more pronounced than in Pakistan.

While the Musharraf-led regime is treated as darling of the West for joining the United States in the war on terror, the non-governmental organisations of those countries have shown increasing concern about the shrinking space available to the individual in Pakistan.

These NGOs never hesitated in expressing themselves on their instance that human rights are being usurped by the state in the name of combating terrorism, political stability or any other pretext. One such organisation is International Republican Institute (IRI).

It is a familiar name among the leaders of civil society and media for its periodic surveys which help one judge the state of the nation's health from political, economic and social angles.

IRI's last few surveys showed the regime isolated and unpopular, something which the regime was not prepared to accept. So this reported refusal to renew visas of senior staffers of the IRI, provoking PPP leaders to launch a protest against this "institutional rigging" just few a weeks ahead of the parliamentary elections.

Throwing out independent observers of the scene, is counterproductive, for the situation we are presently in is too grave to brook administrative manipulation. Instead of impeding access by the NGOs, the government should welcome non-partisan neutral observers because that would lend the much needed credibility to the electoral process.

The bitter fact is that most of the civil society is not on board, as was reflected in the countrywide Justice Iftikhar Day the other day and throughout the country the members of legal community staged demonstrations demanding reinstatement of the sacked judges.

Their protests almost coincided with a meeting of several hundred ex-servicemen who set up a five-member committee to force President Musharraf to step down. Will the coming elections satisfy the lawyers and ex-servicemen? We don't think so. Ours is a grave crisis, much bigger for one election to overcome, especially when even for that one election a level playing field is not being provided to all players.


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