Returning Officers provoke laughter with oddball election questions

Tribunal overturns ROs in Ayaz Amir case (Credit

ISLAMABAD, April 5–  Aslam Khan Khattak passed his first — and perhaps most curious — test this week in his quest to become a member of Pakistan’s parliament: He correctly named the first person to walk on the moon.

The question was posed to Khattak by Pakistani judges, who have provoked both laughter and criticism in recent days in their vetting of potential candidates in the country’s upcoming national elections with queries that have veered between the controversial and the bizarre.

One candidate was prodded to spell the word graduation. Another was quizzed on the lyrics of the national anthem. A third was asked how she would manage to serve as a lawmaker with two young children at home.

Many candidates were forced to recite Islamic prayers to prove they were devout Muslims, and one — a prominent journalist — was disqualified because one of his newspaper columns was deemed to have ridiculed Pakistan’s ideology.

“The manner in which the exercise of screening election candidates is being conducted cannot even be termed as childish. It is far worse,” Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper said in an editorial Friday.

The source of the problem, according to critics, is a pair of articles in Pakistan’s constitution — 62 and 63 — introduced in the 1980s by former military dictator Gen. Zia ul-Haq that govern who is eligible to serve in parliament.

The former dictator sought to intensify the religious nature of the majority Muslim country, and article 62 stipulates a lawmaker “has adequate knowledge of Islamic teachings and practices obligatory duties prescribed by Islam.” It also mandates a candidate must be honest and has not “worked against the integrity of the country or opposed the ideology of Pakistan.”

Although the articles have been in the constitution for years, they haven’t played a significant role in past elections. But the Supreme Court has pressed judges vetting thousands of candidates to enforce the law more strictly in the run-up to the May 11 parliamentary election in an attempt to weed out corrupt politicians and those who may have broken basic laws, such as not paying their taxes, a common abuse in Pakistan.

The election will mark the first transition between democratically-elected governments in the 65-year history of Pakistan, a country that has experienced three military coups and constant political instability.

Former military dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf returned to Pakistan recently to contest the election in four different constituencies, which is allowed in the country. But his nomination papers were rejected in one constituency in central Punjab province Friday because he did not meet the criteria in articles 62 and 63, said lawyer Javed Kasuri, who filed a complaint against Musharraf.

Weeding out corrupt lawmakers is widely supported in Pakistan, where public graft is alleged to be rampant. But the decision by some judges to make candidates recite verses from Islam’s holy book, the Quran, to prove they are good Muslims has sparked outrage.

Officials “don’t have the right to determine who is a good Muslim and who is a bad Muslim, and they must not reject nomination papers just because someone could not recite verses from the Quran,” said Asma Jehangir, one of Pakistan’s top human rights activists.

She said the people of Pakistan should have the right to decide the fate of these candidates themselves.

The decision of a judge in Punjab on Thursday to reject the nomination papers of Ayaz Amir, a prominent journalist and national lawmaker, also generated significant controversy.

Amir said the judge told him that an article he wrote about famous newspaper columnist Ardeshir Cowasjee after the man’s death last year ridiculed Pakistan’s ideology — a hotly debated subject in a country that has many competing storylines. The judge did not mention what was specifically wrong with the article, which discussed Amir’s friendship with Cowasjee.

“It was a case of illiteracy. The judge didn’t understand what I wrote in English,” said Amir, who plans to appeal the ruling. “Nothing was against the ideology of Pakistan.”

Amir wrote in the newspaper The News on Friday that the government should repeal articles 62 and 63 because they give too much power to religious leaders in the country. Politicians have been hesitant to act for fear of appearing un-Islamic.

“Every society has its share of outright fools, holding forth as if they have a direct line to heaven, but few societies give fools such a free rein as we seem to do,” wrote Amir.

Ishtiaq Ahmad Khan, the secretary of Pakistan’s election commission, said the problem was that the judges are dealing with subjective issues that need to be standardized, likely by the Supreme Court.

“All these things need to be debated very seriously,” said Khan. “These are very serious issues that have implications for the democratic process.”

The election commission stirred a bit of controversy itself when it forwarded a proposal to the government this week to add to the ballot the choice of “none of the above” — admittedly one that many Pakistanis might support given their low opinion of the country’s politicians. Khan, the election commission secretary, said the organization was just following the Supreme Court’s order.

Some of the questions asked by the judges clearly seemed to fall outside the purview of determining a candidate’s eligibility according to the law, prompting The Express Tribune newspaper to say the process had taken “a turn for the weird.”

Zahid Iqbal, a candidate from the Sunni Tehreek party in the southern city of Karachi, was asked for the correct abbreviation of a bachelor of law degree and the spelling of the word graduation, said the party’s spokesman, Fahim Sheikh. Iqbal failed on both counts, and the judge is expected to decide his fate Friday, said Sheikh.

Former Punjab provincial lawmaker Shamshad Gohar said a judge asked her how many children she had.

“When I said I have two children, aged seven and 11, he said, ‘Your children are too young and how will you manage to look after them after becoming a lawmaker,'” said Gohar, who assured the judge she could handle it.

Perhaps the strangest question was put to Khattak in Karachi, who was asked to name the first person to step on the moon. When Khattak said it was Neil Armstrong, the judge quickly asked who next stepped on the moon. Khattak said it was also Armstrong since he was not disabled and had use of both of his legs.

His candidacy was approved.


Associated Press writers Atif Raza in Karachi, Pakistan, Zaheer Babar in Lahore, Pakistan, and Munir Ahmed in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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