GIVEN the potentially volatile situation in the country, one should welcome the Inter-Services Public Relations`s announcement that the army will not be involved in the conduct of the general election due next month. The ISPR spokesman said on Sunday that while the army could be asked to help law and order for the Feb 18 vote, conducting the general election was the Election Commission`s responsibility. The ISPR announcement deserves to be seen against the backdrop of Pakistan`s traumatic history. In the past, the army has been more than `involved` in the conduct of elections, because it had a stake in the results. When an army chief chooses to hold an election not only for parliament but personally for himself, one can see where the army would stand. Since 1958 when Ayub Khan staged a coup in Pakistan, referendums and parliamentary/presidential elections have been held with some involvement of the army in the political process. In the case of Ziaul Haq, this phenomenon was so blatant that the president also remained the army chief when he held a referendum and organised polls. In each case, the army was naturally interested in the `positive` outcome of the elections.
Closer in time, we can see Gen Musharraf replicating his predecessors. The referendum he organised was phony, and Musharraf admitted this later. The 2002 elections, even though the political parties were allowed to take part in them, were as controversial as the 1985 non-party parliamentary elections under Ziaul Haq. President Musharraf is no more in uniform, but the fact of his association with the army for 46 years and his political ambitions continue to raise questions about the credibility of next month`s electoral exercise. Hence the decision not to involve the army in the conduct of the elections even remotely at any stage is a wise one and one hopes that the army chief realises that any move to the contrary would make the political climate even murkier and render the outcome of the elections controversial. Already, most political parties have been persistently expressing their apprehensions that the Feb 18 vote could be rigged. The fact that the interim governments at the centre and in the provinces are anything but neutral and Prime Minister Mohammedmian Soomro himself belongs to the PML-Q has lent credence to the opposition`s charge.
Given the situation in Swat and Fata, the army`s hands are already full. Involving it in the conduct of the elections would mean dragging the army deeper into politics. The army`s intervention in politics during the last five decades has had devastating consequences for Pakistan. There are no democratic institutions even 60 years after independence, and the provinces have failed to act as responsible constituent units of a well-integrated and vibrant federation in which inter-provincial issues could be sorted out through a constitutional mechanism. If at all the army has a function in the Feb 18 vote, it lies in the form of helping the police and paramilitary forces maintain law and order.