As Pakistan’s politicians file their nomination papers for the upcoming May 11 elections, they may be surprised to find that it simply isn’t as easy to be eligible as it once was. Candidates are now being scrutinized regarding their utility bill payments, bank loans, and taxes in a commendable effort to rid Pakistan’s government of the corrupt criminals who often find their way to parliament.
However, in an absolutely absurd move, they have also begun to enforce the once-forgotten articles 62 and 63 of the Pakistan constitution, which require that only “pious” and “law-abiding” Muslims can hold office. This has led to election commission authorities forcing candidates to prove their Islamic credentials by reciting verses from the Quran or answering Islamic history trivia questions often times airing it on TV.
To their credit, they have also asked other non-religious questions in order to rate intelligence after it was found that an outrageously large number of college degrees held by politicians in the last parliament were fake. The other night, flipping through channels, I found a Pakistani news channel airing a clip of the election commission authorities asking a candidate who claimed to hold an MBA to spell Economics. Unsurprisingly, he couldn’t.
However, the enforcement of articles 62 and 63, and what is clearly a piety test is not going to help Pakistan’s politics, but is going to hurt them. While law-abiding is a term that can be defined and scrutinized through law-enforcement, “pious” cannot. It is a term too ambiguous and too personal to be judged upon when deciding whether or not someone is eligible to run for elections.
In fact, the clauses themselves were imposed by General Zia ul-Haq, a former military dictator and conservative religious hard-liner who had made it his mission to see the “Islamization” of Pakistan in the 1980s. And prior to these elections, the commission had mostly turned a blind eye on the “pious” clause because, as leading lawyer Baber Sattar claims, if all politicians were judged on how religious they were, the parliament would likely be empty.
Article 62 also holds that a Member of Parliament must be of good character and not known to violate Islamic injunctions, be righteous, honest and amen (trustworthy) and have adequate knowledge of religious teachings while also abstain from major sins. That is what you call a tall order.
“The language of Article 62,” he says, “isn’t judicially enforceable. Are we saying someone who doesn’t pray five times a day can’t be a Member of Parliament?”
This type of screening also, in a way, takes the vote out of the people’s hands, who are the rightful owners, and instead puts it in the hands of the commission judges who can decide who is eligible on flimsy and ambiguous grounds.
Ali Dayan Hasan, the Pakistan director of Human Rights Watch argues much of the same, saying, “This is a form of prepoll rigging against those who do not meet the approval of these authorities.”
A case in point is Ayaz Amir, a journalist, politicians and a Muslim League-Nawaz candidate whose papers were rejected on the basis that one of his recent columns mentioned alcohol in them — which is banned in the country, although how well that ban is enforced is another question entirely.
When it comes down to it, keeping corrupt politicians out of Pakistan by looking at the legitimacy of their college degrees, their criminal records, etc. is not only commendable, but necessary — especially after the group of fake degree-holding criminals Pakistan’s parliament just saw for the past five years. However, judging candidates based on how many times they pray a day, or whether or not they can recite certain verses of the Quran is simply absurd and will prove to be detrimental to Pakistan’s election process.