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Candidates in Pakistan vote face oddball questions

Friday - 4/5/2013, 5:05pm  ET

Pakistani vendors fix posters of candidates taking part in the upcoming parliamentary elections in Lahore, Pakistan on Friday, April 5, 2013. Pakistani officials have provoked both laughter and criticism in recent days as they vetted potential candidates in the country's upcoming national elections with questions that veered between the controversial and the bizarre. (AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary)

SEBASTIAN ABBOT
Associated Press

ISLAMABAD (AP) -- Aslam Khan Khattak passed his first -- and perhaps most curious -- test this week in his quest to become a member of Pakistan's parliament: He correctly named the first person to walk on the moon.

The question was posed to Khattak by Pakistani judges, who have provoked both laughter and criticism in recent days in their vetting of potential candidates in the country's upcoming national elections with queries that have veered between the controversial and the bizarre.

One candidate was prodded to spell the word graduation. Another was quizzed on the lyrics of the national anthem. A third was asked how she would manage to serve as a lawmaker with two young children at home.

Many candidates were forced to recite Islamic prayers to prove they were devout Muslims, and one -- a prominent journalist -- was disqualified because one of his newspaper columns was deemed to have ridiculed Pakistan's ideology.

"The manner in which the exercise of screening election candidates is being conducted cannot even be termed as childis," Pakistan's Dawn newspaper said in an editorial Friday. "It is far worse."

The source of the problem, according to critics, is a pair of articles in Pakistan's constitution -- 62 and 63 -- introduced in the 1980s by former military dictator Gen. Zia ul-Haq that govern who is eligible to serve in parliament.

The former dictator sought to intensify the religious nature of the majority Muslim country, and article 62 stipulates a lawmaker "has adequate knowledge of Islamic teachings and practices obligatory duties prescribed by Islam." It also mandates a candidate must be honest and has not "worked against the integrity of the country or opposed the ideology of Pakistan."

Although the articles have been in the constitution for years, they haven't played a significant role in past elections. But the Supreme Court has pressed judges vetting thousands of candidates to enforce the law more strictly in the run-up to the May 11 parliamentary election in an attempt to weed out corrupt politicians and those who may have broken basic laws, such as not paying their taxes, a common abuse in Pakistan.

The election will mark the first transition between democratically-elected governments in the 65-year history of Pakistan, a country that has experienced three military coups and constant political instability.

Former military dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf returned to Pakistan recently to contest the election in four different constituencies, which is allowed in the country. But his nomination papers were rejected in one constituency in central Punjab province Friday because he did not meet the criteria in articles 62 and 63, said lawyer Javed Kasuri, who filed a complaint against Musharraf.

Weeding out corrupt lawmakers is widely supported in Pakistan, where public graft is alleged to be rampant. But the decision by some judges to make candidates recite verses from Islam's holy book, the Quran, to prove they are good Muslims has sparked outrage.

Officials "don't have the right to determine who is a good Muslim and who is a bad Muslim, and they must not reject nomination papers just because someone could not recite verses from the Quran," said Asma Jehangir, one of Pakistan's top human rights activists.

She said the people of Pakistan should have the right to decide the fate of these candidates themselves.

The decision of a judge in Punjab on Thursday to reject the nomination papers of Ayaz Amir, a prominent journalist and national lawmaker, also generated significant controversy.

Amir said the judge told him that an article he wrote about famous newspaper columnist Ardeshir Cowasjee after the man's death last year ridiculed Pakistan's ideology -- a hotly debated subject in a country that has many competing storylines. The judge did not mention what was specifically wrong with the article, which discussed Amir's friendship with Cowasjee.

"It was a case of illiteracy. The judge didn't understand what I wrote in English," said Amir, who plans to appeal the ruling. "Nothing was against the ideology of Pakistan."

Amir wrote in the newspaper The News on Friday that the government should repeal articles 62 and 63 because they give too much power to religious leaders in the country. Politicians have been hesitant to act for fear of appearing un-Islamic.

"Every society has its share of outright fools, holding forth as if they have a direct line to heaven, but few societies give fools such a free rein as we seem to do," wrote Amir.

Ishtiaq Ahmad Khan, the secretary of Pakistan's election commission, said the problem was that the judges are dealing with subjective issues that need to be standardized, likely by the Supreme Court.

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