Pakistan election law narrows candidates

Posted: Wednesday, October 16, 2002

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Shahtaj Qizilbash has spent a career in the fray of Pakistani politics, advocating women's rights, campaigning for parliament and promoting peace with India -- and she says she had thought of running for office again.

But Qizilbash didn't take part in this month's elections -- the first since President Pervez Musharraf seized power in 1999 -- in part because of a law requiring candidates to have a university degree.

The law, which the government says will ensure a more efficient and less corrupt legislature, was decreed by Musharraf in January, along with a slew of constitutional changes that have kept the president's best-known opponents out of the race and have guaranteed him at least five more years in power.

''It's not just me that is being affected. It's 90 percent of the people of Pakistan that are excluded by this law,'' the 63-year-old Qizilbash, a high school graduate, said from her home city of Lahore. ''I am so angry and frustrated, but there is not much one can do.''

Opposition and human rights officials say the law is undemocratic and exclusionary, especially in a developing country like Pakistan. The Washington-based National Democratic Institute, which monitors democracy worldwide, said the requirement means only one-in-10 of Pakistan's 145 million people are eligible to run.

Pakistani human rights leaders say the requirement is particularly harmful to women, minorities and people from rural areas.

''It is the stupid idea of a wooden-headed general,'' said Asma Jehangir of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. ''A parliament is not a house of graduates. It is a house of the people, and it must reflect who we are.''

It is impossible to say how many people the law has kept from running, since most who didn't qualify, like Qizilbash, have simply stayed out of the election. But the degree requirement has excluded 30 percent of the lawmakers in the last parliament from the campaign.

Jehangir said the government wants to consolidate its control.

''If you exclude 99 percent of the people, then you only have to spy on the other 1 percent,'' she said.

Some opposition and human rights leaders have complained that the law is a gift to religious parties because it equates graduation from some Islamic schools with a university education. The schools have been criticized in the United States, where they are accused of preaching intolerance and sometimes violence.

Sheik Rashid Ahmad, a university graduate and candidate in the congested old city of Rawalpindi, said the corrupt could simply buy their way around the law with fake degrees, and that those who legitimately qualify are not necessarily the best candidates.

''I have not been that impressed with the educated people of this country, anyway,'' said Ahmad, wading into a crowd of shopkeepers and laborers shooting off firecrackers and throwing rose petals to celebrate his visit.

The education requirements are not the only restrictions Musharraf imposed on the elections, which will determine the members of both houses of the national parliament and Pakistan's four provincial legislatures, as well as the next prime minister. Candidates convicted of crimes in absentia also are ineligible, a rule that excluded former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who has been convicted of corruption and is living in self-imposed exile.

The man Musharraf ousted, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, also is not running, having accepted a 10-year exile in return for his release from prison.

Musharraf has said the restrictions are needed to clean up corruption. His minister of law, Khalid Ramjah, noted the university requirement was upheld by the Supreme Court.

Ramjah said only the powerful oppose it.

''People with huge tracts of land, by virtue of their local influence, were getting into parliament, but there was no democratic culture. These were the robber barons of their areas,'' he said.

''With education, people have democratic attitudes, and so it was determined that to improve the standard of parliament it would be better to have graduates. The law was not intended or designed to keep anybody out.''

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