A Fair Vote in Pakistan?

Much fraud despite sanctity of an official `fair' verdict

THOUGH election observation is more art than science, it has become a veritable profession. The National Democratic Institute (NDI) has observed some 20 foreign elections, most recently in Pakistan. Its original charge was to be the Democrat Party's task force to ``conduct nonpartisan international programs to help maintain and strengthen democratic institutions.'' Because of the importance of foreign elections, NDI's work has become an important actor in United States foreign policy and the domestic politics of these countries. In Pakistan, NDI's conclusion about the election's fairness will affect whether part of $600 million in annual US foreign aid to Pakistan is continued.

Under legislation sponsored by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) of Maryland, the president must certify the election's fairness. At a press conference, a State Department spokesman stated that NDI has more experience than the US Embassy in evaluating electoral fairness and its judgment would affect the president's decision.

Two days after the Oct. 24 Pakistani parliamentary vote, NDI announced its preliminary conclusion at a Karachi press conference. NDI noted serious problems like the incapacity of polling agents to verify the identity of women (whose photos are usually not on identity cards) and bias in TV coverage.

NDI's statement also noted the partisan nature of the trials against Benazir Bhutto and her party; the unfair advantages to incumbency; as well as numerous allegations whose validity cannot be quickly assessed.

I would have also noted that deputy commissioners had moved polling sites and police squadrons; identity cards needed for voting during three consecutive electoral campaigns were issued by army-linked governments; and that the higher turnout in 1990 was contradicted by shorter and fewer voting lines. However, I and other journalists witnessed blatant fraud by both sides. The 40 NDI members from many different countries presumably reached a consensus and concluded that these and other problems with the election noted had not ``significantly altered'' its outcome.

The NDI finding is not credible because the effect of these aberrations is incalculable. I am not saying whether or not the Pakistan election was credible or fair enough. Neither I nor NDI will probably know until at least the election commission has carefully examined the evidence adduced about complaints submitted, probably a six-month process. NDI's planned statistical analysis may prove revealing, but a final report issued in mid-December, as planned, may be premature.

A week after the press conference, NDI sought an out from its controversial conclusion. Columbia University professor Barnett Rubin, an NDI member, wrote in The New York Times that NDI hadn't validated the election result. Then, NDI executive vice president Kenneth Wollack testified before Congress, ``We have not certified'' the elections.

Yet, in stating that the results were not affected, NDI had implicitly validated the election's credibility and the new government's legitimacy. Even if NDI were to reverse its initial finding in the future, an unlikely though embarrassing possibility, it would be too late to reverse the installation of the new government.

The NDI practice to issue a preliminary conclusion has established a very dangerous precedent. If NDI continues to issue preliminary judgments on electoral legitimacy, it will again face many elections where the evidence of fraud is murky.

If it now decides that it does not have sufficient evidence to reach a conclusion, that would play into the hands of those who will claim, ``Aha, there was fraud after all.'' To play on the safe side, foreign observers should not offer any preliminary statements unless it has indisputable evidence.

The NDI Mission chairman, a former Turkish foreign minister, asserted to applause at the press conference that, ``We are applying the standards used by the democratic countries, not Islamic, Pakistani, or any other criteria.'' Clearly, this election failed to meet the democratic standards of freedom of expression, one-man one-vote, and non-intimidation.

NDI's basis for passing judgment is a presumption of innocence, noting only those infractions that were substantiated. Unfortunately, in countries with less than democratic practices and ethics, fraud and malfeasance, except in blatant cases such as the Philippine election in February 1986, or Panama in May 1989, can be neither proven or disproved with hard evidence.

NDI ought to be more circumspect about making prestigious pronouncements, when political instability is at stake. If it is likely that a partly unfair election will be held, that may be an election worth sitting out.

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