Fake degrees a key issue in looming national election

Hundreds of Pakistan’s legislators face being barred from contesting upcoming elections. The country’s election commission is poised to declare them ineligible, on the grounds that they submitted fake degrees to prove their eligibility to run in the 2008 elections.

That year, having a degree was a precondition for contesting elections. Articles 62 and 63 of the constitution barred liars, cheats and defaulters from holding public office.

There has been an outcry among all political parties who have fake degree-holders in their ranks, paving the way for the opposition and government to unite and argue that the issue is no longer relevant, after a 2010 amendment to election laws ended the requirement of graduation to stand for election.

But the Election Commission of Pakistan, or ECP, maintains that politicians who pretended in the 2008 elections to have genuine degrees are not eligible to participate in the polls this year under the constitutional articles 62 and 63.

The ECP believes that nearly 2,000 of the 9,000 politicians who stood for election in 2008 submitted fake degrees, and that they should be barred from contesting future polls.

“After the 2010 order of the Supreme Court, the Higher Education Commission (HEC) started verification of the degrees of only elected candidates. Nobody bothered about out-of-parliamentary cheats and liars who are now ready to contest the 2013 polls,” an ECP officer who did not wish to be named told University World News.

Also, the degrees of 206 members of parliament still await verification and the number of fake-degree holding MPs could shock the world, he said.

By 2011, the HEC had declared 58 lawmakers to be in possession of fake degrees. Those politicians resigned to avoid legal action and by-elections were held to fill their vacant seats.

But the process of verification has since ground to a halt, as the remaining legislators did not provide their original documents for verification and the election commission failed to cooperate further with the HEC because of political pressures.

But now the new ECP chief Fakhruddin Ibrahim has announced the intention not to bow to political pressure and to oust those “who cheated the nation”. Now he has come under strong criticism for declaring 27 candidates who have been found to have fake degrees, eligible for election.

Ibrahim maintains that those politicians have provided evidence from universities supporting the validity of their degrees – but last week HEC Chair Javaid Laghari insisted that verification of those degrees must be through the HEC.

Laghari told University World News that although it was none of the commission’s business who ran for election, “only the HEC is authorised to investigate the authenticity of university degrees”.

Former HEC chair Atta-ur-Rahman, who is now president of the Pakistan Academy of Sciences, told University World News: “In light of the Peoples’ Representation Act and the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision, the ECP should have initiated criminal proceedings against those MPs found to have fake degrees.

“And besides other punishments, as per law they all should have been declared ineligible to run in the polls.”

A senior member of the HEC told University World News that verifying the originality of any bachelor degree “is not an uphill task, even if the bogus degree has a back-up record in any university. Some MPs managed to get near-genuine degrees in connivance with some corrupt officials of some universities, but there is a simple way to ascertain that.

"The intermediate and matriculation certificates that people have to provide to take graduation exams could be checked. Many MPs became graduates without doing intermediate and matriculation.”

On 23 January the National Assembly’s standing committee approved an HEC amendment bill aiming at reducing the term of the chair and the commission’s autonomy. The bill, to be tabled in parliament, has been widely criticised and declared an attempt to sabotage the degrees verification process.

Atta-ur-Rahman told University World News that politicians wanted to destroy the HEC as it was not capitulating to their demands to let the fake degree issue disappear. By doing so, they would destroy Pakistan’s higher education system.

Last week Sindh province – where the national ruling party, the PPP, is in power – created its own HEC and maintains that the federal commission can no longer initiate the verification of the degrees of MPs from that province.

But fast-moving developments and mounting public pressure paved the way for a meeting of top guns from government, the ECP and the HEC last Thursday.

The 28 February meeting agreed that the process of degree verification would continue, with the HEC being the coordinating institution between universities and the election commission. The ECP aims to complete the process by 16 March.