EVER since year 2007 started, the buzzword is ‘Election Year’. Whether it is about the election year political or judicial activity, or the ‘good election year budget’, the election year sloganeering is at its peak and parties are busy forging new alliances and reviving the old ones to get the holy grail of parliamentary style democracy, simple majority in the lower house (heavy mandate is so out, remember what it did to a certain Mr Nawaz Sharif).With elections come election monitors, at least in countries where democracy is on shaky grounds and Pakistan certainly passes muster on that count. Election monitoring is the observation of an election by one or more independent parties, typically from another country or a non-governmental organisation (NGO), primarily to ensure the fairness of the electoral process.
An international election monitor is quite different from, let’s say, a class monitor. A class monitor is a lot more powerful than an international observer monitoring elections. The class monitor has complete authority over its subjects; an election monitor on the other hand, just monitors and reports the events as they unfold.
I too, have had the honour of working as an international observer monitoring elections in Sri Lanka for their parliamentary elections in 2004. My job was a bit more specific than your average run of the mill observer. I was there to specifically monitor election related violence. It meant that if anyone wanted to rig elections right in front of my eyes, they were welcome to do so, as long as they did it peacefully.
Before I embarked on the mission to observe, along with 15 other observers, I was given a couple of days of training about what to do in the field, what to look for, who to meet and what procedures to follow if I happen to witness election related violence. During the briefing, I was introduced to all kinds of election observers. The variety I got introduced to, for the very first time, was a diplomatic husband. I know the term is quite alien to us Pakistanis where husbands need not be diplomatic at all, but believe me, there are quite a number of them out there. All of them were from Scandinavian countries. Their wives work for diplomatic missions, so they could not be engaged in gainful employment. As they don’t attend ikebana classes like most diplomatic ladies do, they spend their days collecting children from school or playing golf or monitoring elections as it is not classified as work. Technically, you have to volunteer to observe elections.
There are monitors who have mastered the art of monitoring elections and have monitored elections everywhere; from Belarus to Nigeria to Papua New Guinea to Ecuador. One monitor’s dream monitoring job was to monitor elections in Saudia Arabia, when they get democracy that is.Some observers are students from rich countries with huge doctoral grants who want to get in the underbelly of the political system of a third world country and what better of that would be than monitoring elections.
Then there are US monitors who want to bring ‘democracy’ to the whole world. When I lauded their efforts of flying off to foreign lands, making the rest of the world safe for ‘democracy’, and asked them if their government would open doors for the rest of the world to check on the fairness of elections in US, they said that US boasts the oldest democracy which hardly requires monitoring. I guess Florida is no longer part of the United States.
Last but not the least are the penury stricken students like me who take on the job because it meant a month away from cold and damp Manchester and a chance to visit home for very little money. Curiosity about the process and prestige ranked much lower when I agreed to take on the job.
After being trained when I went to my duty station, which was a large area around the hill station of Kandy, I made a schedule for the fortnight I had before elections about the places to visit and the people to meet. Sadly, my schedule was shot to pieces with almost daily occurrence of bomb blasts, if it can be called that. Every other day, one would hear about a bomb blast in an area. Upon visiting the site, we would find a one and half feet-wide dent, caused by a homemade petrol bomb created in a used soft drink bottle. The only incident when they actually used hand grenades did not garner much attention as none of the bombs exploded. I ventured too close to the site and squatted next to the unexploded hand grenade to take a picture. My 70-year-old translator almost had a heart attack flinging his arms like crazy asking me to get away. He was not too happy with me and only stopped admonishing me when I told him that my bravado stemmed from ignorance rather than valour and courage.
As part of the monitoring process, I met local politicians from the three leading political parties. Imagine the plight of those who will have to monitor elections in Pakistan. They will have to meet with a dozen factions of PML alone, then there are a couple of JUIs, JUPs and MQMs along with ANP, JI, TI, NAP, BNP, JWP and what not. To top it, we have three versions of Ms Bhutto’s political party which are Pakistan Peoples Party, Pakistan Peoples Party Parliamentarians and of course Pakistan Peoples Party Parliamentarian Patriots (Quite a mouthful, isn’t it?).
While monitoring elections in Sri Lanka, one politician asked me about my nationality. When I told him I am from Pakistan, he asked me if I know Shoaib Akhtar. The only common ground between me and Mr Akhtar is our green passport and nothing else. When I tried to divert his attention to Sri Lankan politics and the violence around it, he refused to budge and talked about his plans to invite himself as a chief guest to all international cricket matches and meet his favourite stars when he gets to the parliament and becomes a minister. Shoaib Akhtar obviously topped his wish list along with Rahul Dravid, Jaques Kallis and Brett Lee.
In the end, my station turned out to be quite peaceful. There were no deaths reported and only four people got injured. A few bombs here and there and the minor irritant of Shoaib Akhtar fixation, it was quite an experience, one that I would highly recommend.
originally published in dawn