ISLAMABAD // Waseem Afzal Gondal, a member of the Punjab provincial assembly, had an improbable explanation after his bachelor's degree was declared a fake: "My opponents are behind it." Mr Gondal is one of dozens of Pakistani politicians whose credentials have been declared fake or forged in recent weeks as authorities here scrutinise the university degrees of lawmakers.
The Supreme Court this year asked the election commission to verify the degrees of 1,065 of the country's 1,170 provincial and federal lawmakers. Mehmood Raza, adviser to the Higher Education Commission of Pakistan, said in a briefing yesterday that while 452 have been declared genuine, 29 have been declared fake. Guilty lawmakers face losing their seats. At least six parliamentarians have been forced to resign so far and at least 12 have been unseated.
Universities across the country are in the process of vetting degrees of lawmakers and are to send the data to the commission by Tuesday. The number of lawmakers with dubious credentials is so high thatthere are rumblings about the possibility of a midterm election. The requirement that candidates running for electoral office have a bachelor's degree or its equivalent was instituted in 2002 by Pervez Musharraf, who was president at the time, before Pakistan's parliament existed.
The Supreme Court struck down the requirement in April 2008, but elections had already been held in February. Many politicians are suspected to have obtained degrees through fraudulent means to be able to run for office. Mr Musharraf had defended the law as necessary to ensure the introduction of educated and refined lawmakers into parliament, but the political class, by and large, opposed the restriction.
Many politicians contend the law was unconstitutional and against fundamental rights. Winning an election in rough-and-tumble Pakistani politics has never required a prestigious Ivy League degree, many politicians argue. Instead, local strongmen, who can work through a decades-old system of grand patronage, have had a monopoly over politics. Also, almost half of the country's population is illiterate, and observers say most Pakistani politicians do not feel the need to have a high level of education.
"Most of the political class here has never much cared for education anyway," said Omar R Quraishi, the editor of the editorial pages at The Express Tribune, a Karachi-based English-language daily. "Apart from top politicians who went abroad for higher degrees, most of the politicians don't have any degree. It might not be a bad thing because they are representing the electorate that is itself illiterate. What is wrong is that these parliamentarians have lied about their degrees".
Some politicians even go as far as to say their voters were aware of their fake degrees but voted for them anyway because they believed in the politician's ability to represent them. Critics, however, see this line of defence as a desperate attempt by traditional political families to ensure their hold over power. Politicians such as Mr Gondal, on the other hand, seem unabashed, and blame their opponents of hatching Machiavellian schemes.
"My opponents have managed to tamper [with] my degree," said Mr Gondal, who represents the Mandi Bahauddin district of Punjab for the Pakistani Peoples Party. "I belong to a very respectable and established political family. We have a lot of enemies and political opponents. This is a scheme by them to defame me." Many lawmakers have criticised the media for its intensive and, they say, inaccurate coverage of the scandal.
Sana Ullah Khan Masti Khel, an MP with the Pakistan Muslim-League-Nawaz, accused local television networks of broadcasting incriminating reports about lawmakers not having degrees without verification. "In several instances, news reports have turned out to be incorrect. But no apology has been tendered by the media," said Mr Khel. "We have no intention to enter into a confrontation with media. But we do want to point out that media should not distort facts or indulge in inappropriate portrayals of parliamentarians".
Mr Gondal, meanwhile, declined to give details about his educational qualifications. "I have challenged the decision by the Higher Education Commission in court, so I cannot talk about details," he said. But he suggested that his political opponents had managed to bribe university officials who then tampered with his degree and made it appear fake. "Anything is possible in Pakistan," he said. email@example.com