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Was it rigging?

The mere fact that the RTS failed and fell short of standards of transparency is enough fuel for the opposition’s narrative that the general elections were rigged. Thus begins the all too familiar cycle of political instability

Was it rigging?

There has never been an election, after 1970, in which the losing party did not level serious allegations of rigging. In fact, all through the 1990s, the accusation have been the core issue around which oppositions built long protest campaigns that invariably led to premature dissolution of assemblies and fresh elections, only to start the same cycle again.

The unrelenting protest campaign by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) after general elections 2013, with the same cause, reinforced the old tradition. That the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) was able to complete its tenure is perhaps the only improvement that democratic discourse has been able to make thus far.

The late night press conference after the polling on July 25 thus was unsurprising as PML-N now looked poised to pay back PTI in the same coin. Shall we then see the rigging allegations as part of our uncanny political culture and say that parties lack character to concede defeat and accept the popular verdict?

There can be little doubt that rigging allegations provide the best way to challenge the legitimacy of a party’s government. But equally undeniable is the fact that we have repeatedly failed to hold elections that are free and fair, in letter and spirit.

One common characteristic of these allegations throughout our electoral history has been that losing parties did not accuse the winning parties, per se, of committing fraud but they blamed ‘a third force’ for intervening in electoral discourse, in covert manners, to favour their opponents.

The ‘favours’ can be sorted into two main types. The first is what we have come to term as ‘pre-poll political engineering’ by the establishment. It first gained notoriety when they cobbled together Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) before elections in 1988 to counter PPP of Benazir Bhutto. Its creators never shied away from admitting the purpose of its creation. Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) of 1977 elections was its predecessor but had electorally proved to be less effective.

The real marvel of this high art was the 1985 parliament which was elected through party-less elections but formed a party of the winners later. The same creative faculties were employed, albeit with more finesse, in 2002 when the next general himself tailored a political party, and set the electoral field and rules to make it win the election.

Currently, the engineering focuses on certain individuals with considerable ‘personal’ vote banks, i.e., electables, and guides them to join a particular party before elections. This is accompanied by a carefully crafted general perception about the same party as the favourite horse of the establishment in the next race. The make-believe created by the propaganda machinery is reinforced by the electables betting over the same horse. The electables serve as bellwether for the smaller players.

Rigging allegations provide the best way to challenge the legitimacy of a government. But equally undeniable is the fact that we have repeatedly failed to hold elections that are free and fair, in letter and spirit.

Elections 2018 have been no exception. In fact, the engineering went beyond just tipping some electable candidates as many were forced to join PTI or were asked to stay away from the race. A number of PML-N members from South Punjab broke away from the party to form an independent group, Seraiki Suba Mahaz, which had to review its decision of staying independent and joined PTI days later.

All the anti-PPP groups and individuals in Sindh, though divergent in backgrounds and political ideologies, got together to form Grand Democratic Alliance (GDA). Like the PNA of 1977, this too proved to be quite ineffective; in terms of seats it could not win, but it did poll around 40 per cent as many votes as did PPP. That’s comparable to PTI performance in Punjab in 2013.

The second main focus of all the rigging allegations is around the process of results consolidation and announcement after the polling.

Under the previous election law, Representation of People Act 1976, the presiding officers were duty bound to tabulate and announce results at each polling station and then returning officers had to do the same for each constituency after consolidating results of all polling stations. This was, however, replaced with a centralised system of result announcement under Gen Zia in 1985 whereby the ECP’s Islamabad secretariat received results from district returning officers and was the only one authorised to announce.

Though after the restoration of the constitution, the original law became applicable but the electoral machinery remained reluctant to follow it. This rightly became a source of contention between the Commission and the contesting parties as the lack of transparency gave the parties reason to doubt that the results were manipulated.

The parties were reassured by the Commission before 1993 elections that copies of polling station results will be provided to their polling agents. The parties also made the Commission to amend Form 14 (now Form 45) to include space for thumb impression of the presiding officers. They had complained that the presiding officers do not put their original signatures on the copies of forms and declare them forged when challenged in a court. But despite improvements in laws and rules, this crucial area of elections has remained weak.

Free and Fair Elections Network (Fafen) had complained in 2013 elections that returning officers of 110 of total 272 national constituencies had refused or failed to provide them copies of polling station results despite instructions from the ECP secretariat.

In Fafen’s recent preliminary report on elections 2018, it is reported that at a quarter of 6,611 polling stations where it observed vote counting, the presiding officers did not post result forms outside the station, as required by the law. There are reports that polling agents were not allowed to observe the vote counting process. Fafen’s accredited observers were also barred in 730 (eight per cent) of the polling stations it observed.

With this lack of transparency at the crucial stage of counting of vote, one cannot expect the elections to remain credible and non-controversial.

Then came the proverbial last straw — the ‘crashing’ of the Result Transmission System (RTS) on the night of July 25. Following specific provisions in the newly enacted Elections Act 2017, ECP signed a contract with NADRA to develop and deploy an Android app, and train and assist presiding officers to electronically transmit polling station results not only to the Returning Officers but also directly to the ECP secretariat soon after the process of tabulation is completed.

The app was designed to send a non-editable image of Form 45 as well as soft/digitised number of votes polled by each candidate of a constituency. At the receiving end in ECP secretariat, the new system added the soft numbers from all the polling stations of a constituency to display progressive results of each constituency in real time.

RTS wasn’t about high-tech, feel-good gadgetry; it was a strong check on result consolidation process conducted at RO offices which had become contentious in previous elections. In fact, RTS left no room for any manipulation of results between their preparation at polling station and announcement in consolidated form. As the provisional results would have been public within hours of conclusion of polling, this could have easily deprived all parties of levelling any allegations of rigging.

But then almost half way down the process, the system crashed or so were we asked to believe. The political parties find it hard to swallow and they are demanding a probe into the matter. PML-N has submitted a resolution in the Punjab Assembly demanding an inquiry and ‘equating the sudden failure of the system with rigging’.

Read also: Media as mirror 

The inquiry might at the end be held but it will certainly take longer than the politics can wait for. The mere fact that an important check on results consolidation process failed and it fell short on standards of transparency is enough for the opposition to build a narrative that the general elections 2018 were rigged; the people’s verdict was stolen and the new government is not legitimate. All of this sounds like a fresh start of the all too familiar cycle of political instability.

Tahir Mehdi

Tahir Mehdi
The author works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group that has a primary interest in understanding governance and democracy.

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