Fears tax dodgers escape Pakistan poll scrutiny

ISLAMABAD (TIP): After a week of sometimes bizarre scrutiny of candidates for Pakistan’s election, fears are growing that the process has failed to weed out the bribetakers and tax-dodgers it was meant to target. Pakistanis go to the polls on May 11 in a general election that should see power pass from a civilian government that has served a full term to another through the ballot box for the first time in the nuclear-armed country’s turbulent history. There has been furious debate about the process of vetting candidates for the national assembly, after returning officers grilled them on Islamic prayers and rituals and even hit them with baffling general knowledge questions.

The independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has warned that the scrutiny process had turned into a “witchhunt aimed at harassing and humiliating candidates” and was undermining democracy. Two clauses of the Pakistani constitution requiring lawmakers to be knowledgeable about Islam and follow Islamic injunctions lie behind the questioning.

They were introduced by military dictator Zia-ul Haq in the 1980s but lay largely ignored until cleric Tahir-ul Qadri recently launched an anti-corruption campaign, leading tens of thousands of protesters into the streets demanding rigorous scrutiny of politicians. Qadri’s message struck a chord in a country plagued by corruption, where politicians are notoriously venal — President Asif Ali Zardari’s nickname is “Mr Ten Percent” — and few MPs pay tax. Sarwar Bari of the Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN), an independent group which monitors elections in Pakistan, said the returning officers, who have rejected 1,209 out of 8,059 national assembly nominations, had missed the key issue.

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