It’s a difficult task, and many fear that Fakhruddin Ghulam Ebrahim, Pakistan’s chief election commissioner since July, may not be the right man for it. Given his age—he’s 85—and the activist Supreme Court’s deep involvement in the election process, can Ebrahim ensure that his country’s first-ever transition from one fully civilian elected government to another takes place smoothly?
Elections for the national and four provincial assemblies are scheduled for May 11. And the controversies have already started.
Over the past week, judges serving as election officers have humiliated candidates by asking them to recite the national anthem (which is in Persian), recite from the Quran (in Arabic), and spell words such as “graduate” and “economics.” Some of these returning officers also remarked on the looks of politicians appearing before them. One candidate was asked why he hadn’t kept a beard, as the Prophet Muhammad had. Many aspirants, shocked at the questions being put to them, failed these tests. The surreal scenes got high ratings on the country’s cable news channels, reducing the historic elections to little more than an Islamist circus.
Political parties held Ebrahim, himself a former Supreme Court justice, responsible for failing to keep judges working for his organization in line. The same day that the country’s chief justice praised these judges for their “sagacity and wisdom” in dealing with the politicians, Ebrahim’s Election Commission issued a statement distancing itself from their inquisition: “Returning officers are members of Pakistan’s judiciary ... [We do] not instruct or direct [them on] how to decide the fate of nomination forms.”
Coming to Ebrahim’s rescue was the liberal Lahore High Court, which seemingly broke with the chief justice to issue a strong rebuke: “the returning officer must not overstep the law and exceed his limits, lest the scrutiny appears to be a witch-hunt, tarnishing the neutrality and independence of the judiciary as a whole,” it said last week. As a result, several candidates who had been arbitrarily knocked out for not being Muslim enough are back in the race.
With the controversial scrutiny process of some 24,000 candidates now over, Ebrahim’s challenge is to organize free, fair, and peaceful elections for the country’s 86.1 million registered voters. He has the backing of the Army, which is conducting sweeps across the northwest, in Karachi, and in southern Punjab—all strongholds of al Qaeda and the Taliban, who have vowed to disrupt the democratic exercise—to prevent mayhem ahead of (and on) Election Day. (The political wings of jihadist organizations are also participating in the elections. Their candidates passed the Islamist scrutiny process handily.)
Ebrahim also sparked a minor controversy earlier this month when he said voters would be given the choice to vote for none of the candidates on the ballot. A recent survey by the British Council shows that 70 percent of Pakistan’s young—34 percent of all voters younger than age 31—do not support democracy. Facing an outcry from political parties, which fear the elections will be delayed if they happen at all, he quickly withdrew the none-of-the-above option.
“No one can promise that the democratic exercise will be completely free and fair,” Ebrahim told Newsweek. “But I am confident the 2013 elections will be different.” They already are.
Fasih Ahmed is the editor of Newsweek Pakistan.