WITH general elections less than two months away, its still unclear who exactly could be disqualified from contesting under the new electoral law in Pakistan. Confusion and tension reign amidst speculation that a large number of potential candidatesmostly from the two main political parties, the PPP and PML (Nawaz)will not be allowed to contest on account of being bank loan defaulters.
Caretaker Prime Minister Malik Meraj Khalid is only compounding the uncertainty by boasting every other day that "90 per cent of (Pakistans) heavyweight politicians would not be allowed to contest the elections". The caretaker government has prepared a list of 42,000 defaulterspeople who have failed to repay loans taken from banks and other financial institutionswho could be barred from contesting the elections unless they repay their dues.
The list, compiled by the State Bank of Pakistan, the countrys central bank, is being printed and is likely to be made public soon. Anybody with a loan of more than Rs 5 lakh against his name will be subjected to strict scrutiny by the Election Commission. "Most of the politicians have received loans from the Industrial Development Bank of Pakistan and face dis-qualification," an official confirms.
But the exact details are not forthcoming. As Raza Rabbani, a former federal minister in the ousted PPP government, says: "Under the new laws, your nomination papers can also be rejected if utility bills have accumulated against you. Wouldnt it be fair to have a clear criterion laid down? It would help political parties in selecting their candidates and weeding out the corrupt elements from their ranks on their own." Sources say the caretaker government took the decision after a December 9 meeting attended by four high-ranking State Bank officials. The officials reportedly promised to release the list before December 16, when the election schedule is expected to be announced. The Election Commission has reluctantly accepted the responsibility for ensuring that no defaulter participates in the February 3 elections.
According to the latest figures, banks and development finance institutions have to recover about Rs 130 billion, most of it from about 40,000 defaulters. The first list of defaulters was announced by the interim government of Moeen Qureshi in 1993. Both the Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto governments tried to address this issue, but due to political compulsions, their actions lacked conviction. In 1995, a decision was taken to recover Rs 50 billion, to write off about Rs 30 billion and reschedule about Rs 10 billion. But no action was taken as the issue created a storm when it was taken up earlier this year in the now-dissolved National Assembly.
Many analysts believe that the new law is aimed not only at Benazir and her party, but also at Sharif and his party. "Accountability is good. But not at the cost of the elections. Elections must be held, or else no one can stop the peoples revolution," says PML leader Sheikh Mohammed Rashid. But Hamid Nasir Chattha, the leader of a PML faction which has an alliance with the PPP, says: "There should be accountability of at least eight to 10 top politicians before February 3 polls, so that an example is set."
As for Bhutto, more worrying than the list of defaulters is the disunity in her party. A new party is emerging out of the PPP and some dissidents from PML (Nawaz). This "kings party" as she calls it, which according to her has the backing and support of President Farooq Leghari, seems to have gained considerable ground in her home province Sindh. Besides, many PPP dissidents are joining Murtaza Bhuttos party, which is trying to take on the PPP in Sindh. Rebellion is also spreading to Punjab. But Munawar Suharwardi, a PPP leader, claims that this is propaganda being spread to cover the possible rigging in the next polls"so that if they manage to make our rivals win, they would say the PPP has lost support."
Even Benazir seems unfazed and surprised everyone by addressing a mammoth crowd at her hometown Larkana early this month. Benazir aides hint that she has received signals from the "quarters concerned" that her government may be restored. She had already offered a compromise, saying that she would dissolve the assemblies if the president was removed and elections held under a neutral caretaker government. Though such offers have resulted in nought in the past, this time around it may bear fruit as in over 40 days in power the caretakers have not managed to spin a cohesive story about their existence and objectives.