Exclusion of female voters in Gilgit-Baltistan General Elections 2015 and permission to the leaders of banned organizations to contest elections
By Riaz Akbar
The confusion circling the historic general elections in Gilgit-Baltistan making the first transition of political power under the Gilgit-Baltistan (Empowerment and Self-Governance) Order 2009 has finally cleared away and Gilgit-Baltistan appears all set to go to polls on June 8, 2015- a little over a month from now. While the process has been fraught with problems, it has to be seen in a good light. But there are issues that need special attention: the exclusion of women from the democratic process in Diamer and permitting leaders of the banned organizations to contest elections as independent candidates.
On Friday, an Urdu daily from Gilgit-Baltistan ran on its mast two headlines. One informing us, how the contesting candidates of all parties, religious figures, tribal leaders and other politicalactors decided unanimously to bar women from exercising their fundamental right to vote. The, ‘jirga’ –in its infinite stupidity- issued a decree preventing women from casting a vote without caring to include a single woman in that decision. There was no representative of women there. The other headline, placed near to the first one, declared that the leaders and activists of the fifteen banned organizations are now free to contest elections as independent candidates. Only days ago had the government issued a directive barring these fifteen banned outfits from contesting elections. The juxtaposition of the headlines provides an insight into the mess that we have become.
Needless to mention, the right to vote by all adults is a universally recognized fundamental right as enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Pakistan’s constitution also grants this right to all adults without any discrimination based on gender, color, creed or language. Similarly, there are laws restricting terrorist organizations and its members’ activities. In addition to the regular laws, there are special laws of Anti- Terrorism and then there is the National Action Plan. Yet it is interesting that the legal actions are being barred and the illegal ones are being permitted.
The decision to exclude women stems from the predominant conservatism that engulfs the Diamer district. The women in this district are not known to have ever casted a vote. In all the previous elections held in Gilgit-Baltistan, women in Diamer have been left out of the process. Such a blatant violation of fundamental rights of women in this district has not received enough attention. The deeply entrenched sway of Mullahs over public imagination can be gauged from the meekness with which the assembled men in that mosque agreed. One candidate went a step further in currying favors with Mullahs by suggesting that the whole process must be in line with wishes of the ‘ulema’. Election commission process can wait!
In allowing leaders of banned organizations to contest general elections as independent candidates, there appears a mix of appeasement and political benefits for certain quarters. Some leaders have to be mollycoddled. Secondly, the purpose is to divide the rightist votes paving the way for the ruling parties’ victory. Since these leaders have large following in their respective constituencies they can be used for political gains. The beneficiaries of the decision will be the PMLN and the PPP. The country is at war against terrorists and banned outfits and a high level National Action Plan is in place to eliminate extremism. Yet the government conveniently allows the members and leaders of known militant organizations to contest the polls? What kind of a strategy is that?
In both cases the will of the civilized democratic societies is being trampled over. Jirgas have long been used as instruments of state to the detriment of the regular mechanisms. The faltering state empowered jirgas to perform the state’s tasks, emboldening them in the process. Now the state looks like a weak duckling in front of the jirgas. Most of the time, the Jirgas get to impose their desire which is always different from the state’s desire. For far too long has the state ceded its authority to the Jirgas. Jirgas are a relic of a long gone era that is condemned never to repeat, an era of absolute patriarchy preceding the law. They are a symbol of a painful period of our history when mass miscarriage of justice took place. They must have no place in modern states governed by laws based on reason.
The state needs to take its responsibility to enforce the laws seriously. Weak response of state to violations of law has resulted in people and the state paying a very high price in the past. The inaction on part of the state will disenfranchise half of the population of a whole district. This is a violation of a fundamental right- a very serious crime. And this crime has been committed many times. We have an opportunity in this election, not to let the crime repeat. The government must also ban the leaders of these banned organizations from taking part in elections. How is an organization different from the people who run it? Isn’t an organization a group of people? The purpose of defeating extremism will remain a dream if serious assertive action is not taken in stopping the extremists. It is the extremists not the women that the law must bar from contesting the elections. But then women are easy targets, they can be mistreated as men want… and terrorists are…valuable…oh wait…invaluable assets!
The contributor is a Democracy Activist from Gilgit-Baltistan. He is the founder and CEO at the Institute for Democracy. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org