Fake degrees stir fear of ‘mini mid-term polls’ in Pakistan

June 29, 2010

punjab universityPakistani education authorities are verifying university degrees of members of parliament amid fears that scores of them could be disqualified for holding “fake degrees”, leading to “mini mid-term elections” less than three years after general elections were held in the country.

Large scale by-elections could trigger political uncertainty in the country which is presently confronted with growing threat of Islamist militancy and is struggling to bolster a weak economy.

Pakistan’s increasingly assertive Supreme Court last week ordered election authorities to take action against legislators who were found guilty of forging their education degrees to contest general elections in February 2008.

Under a law introduced by former military ruler Pervez Musharraf,  a member of parliament must be a university graduate. The move was seen as an attempt by Musharraf, who resigned after the defeat of his allies in elections, to keep his rivals out of politics, many of whom were not university graduates.

The government of President Asif Ali Zardari, who replaced Musharraf, later struck down the law but the parliamentarians elected in 2008 when the law was in place could find their wins challenged in court. Already, by-elections for about a dozen national seats and four provincial seats have been held recently after the degrees of some office-holders were found to be fake.

Several newspapers quoted a former senior official of the election commission as saying that about 140 members of national and provincial assemblies are holding fake degrees.

The Supreme Court’s decision triggered a heated debate in the country with many people calling for stern action against those found guilty of forgery.

“More is needed,” the liberal newspaper Daily Times said in an editorial. “They need to be barred from ever contesting elections again. Once a fraudulent character has been proved, our frail political system should never have to entertain them again.”

But Pakistani political parties, dominated by powerful feudal lords, are unlikely to shun forgers in any great numbers.

Last month a  legislator of the Zardari’s party from a rural, undeveloped constituency in central Punjab province resigned on accusations that he was holding a fake degree. But the party again fielded him as a candidate in by-elections. He won re-election, drawing strong criticism from media and people.

“Can these people be called sagacious, righteous, non-profligate, honest and ameen (trustworthy) as required by … the constitution,” Azfar A. Khan, a citizen, wrote in a letter published in the daily Dawn.

But Zardari, who is himself accused by his rivals of massive corruption,  defended his party’s decision in a recent speech at a public rally and said it showed people’s confidence in his party.

Most of the holders of fake degrees are believed to be members of the main opposition party led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the PML-N, which rules country’s biggest and most important province of Punjab.

Some in the media have called for “a measure of pragmatism” on the issue of fake degrees.

The Dawn in a recent editorial said disqualification of around 140 parliamentarians, who are believed to be holding fake degrees, would mean by-elections would have to be held in these constituencies.

“A mini-mid-term election is not something the country needs presently,” it said.

The paper suggested the government should push legislation through parliament to exempt the sitting members of  parliament from holding university degrees to avoid political instability.

“Legislation with retrospective effect is not something that should be encouraged, especially where it benefits assembly members themselves, but in the present instance it would be a small price to pay for righting a wrong of Gen. Musharraf’s doing.”

(Reuters photo: A policeman stands guard at Punjab University in Lahore/Adrees Latif)

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