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Voicing dissent

Election observers suggest the formation of a parliamentary commission to probe rigging allegations

Voicing dissent
European Union observers visit a polling station in Punjab.

Political parties are complaining of absence of a level-playing field across Pakistan. Their complaints are somewhat supported by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), Free and Fair Elections Network (FAFEN), and European Union Election Observation Mission, among others, that point out technical flaws and irregularities in their post-election observation reports.

Michael Gahler, the chief of the EU Election Observation Mission termed the overall situation of the general election as “satisfactory”. The EU observers visited around 300 polling stations in 87 constituencies in different parts of the country. Relying on media reports, because they were not permitted early access to the country to observe pre-poll situation, the chief observer backs concerns of different political parties of not having a level-playing field.

HRCP observed that the conduct of the polls was, overall, “orderly and peaceful”. However, it expressed concern over the complaints made by several political parties as well as HRCP’s own observers regarding the management of post-poll formalities.

“Numerous reports that vote counting was poorly handled — with polling agents prevented from observing the final count in many cases — and the unprecedented delay in results have cast a shadow over the electoral process. These questions must be carefully addressed to avoid any doubts concerning the credibility of the elections,” the commission noted.

It showed extreme concern at continuing reports that polling agents, media and observers were not allowed presence during the vote counting in many cases. “A political mandate is not an end in itself and political rhetoric alone will not suffice,” it states. The commission expects from the new opposition that it would remain vigilant and responsive to public concerns to safeguard the country’s democracy.

HRCP further states that polling staff appeared to be biased toward a certain party in some places, with voters who had received slips from another party’s stall being turned back on flimsy grounds.

“We hope that parliament will exercise its jurisdiction and will constitute a parliamentary committee to look into these allegations. The commission was empowered with a new law but its performance was a disappointment,” says Hina Jillani, human rights defender who was part of the HRCP team to observe the general elections.

She says though the ECP managed to improve many technical issues, there were serious questions on its independence. “This is a big question — why did the ECP not exercise its powers to deal with rigging and manipulation and why did it not hold its election staff responsible on matters of ousting polling agents, denying Form 45 etc,” she questions, adding, “Also, there have been unnecessary interventions by the Supreme Court.”

She says there are serious impressions of manipulation and interference, which call for a thorough probe, and re-constitution of the ECP. She hopes the opposition parties will unite in raising a voice in the parliament and will think beyond their interest. “At least the most affected party — Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz — should take up this matter inside and outside the parliament,” she maintains.

Another electoral watchdog FAFEN sees the 2018 general elections as “more transparent in some aspects than the previous polls.” It, however, urges the ECP to address the rigging concerns of political parties.

FAFEN, which also runs a network of more than 50 domestic civil society organisations, observed the polling day was better managed and relatively peaceful until concerns emerged over the counting process and slow announcement of provisional results. “The ECP appeared to be more assertive in its attempt to deliver an improved quality of election. The electoral reforms that strengthened the country’s election framework and granted expanded powers to the ECP clearly led to dividends.”

The FAFEN expects major concerns of political parties over integrity of results counting, tabulation and consolidation processes will be addressed.

“We do not deal with rigging or manipulation but we do see some irregularities in the conduct of elections on the polling day,” says Muddassir Rizvi, Head of Programs, FAFEN.

The Election Act 2017 bestowed new powers on the commission. Still, Rizvi says, “there are questions why the ECP did not use these new powers to deal with the complaints of recounting, Form 45, denying entry to polling agents and decide about rejected ballot papers?”

He further says, “Under the new law, the ECP has the authority to decide matters of recounting, rejected ballot papers and review the matter of recounting before the consolidation of the result. The ECP is legally empowered to deal with such matters but clearly it didn’t.”

Speaking of the way forward, Rizvi suggests the formation of a parliamentary committee to determine why the ECP could not use its powers effectively, and “the parliamentary body give recommendations”.

Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT) in its report notices improvement in training and impartiality of polling staff and their overall management during the polling-day operations.

Polling arrangements for voters remained 64 per cent secure in general election 2018 as compared to the score of 44 per cent during the general election 2013.

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The PILDAT report observes that in terms of polling day management, a steady improvement was recorded since 2002 and 2008 when the process received a score of 40 per cent respectively, improving to 44 per cent in 2013 and now to 64 per cent in 2018.

The report, however, mentions counting of votes, compilation and transmission of results at the lowest score of 40 per cent as compared to the previous elections.

“Overall, there is 5.8 per cent deterioration in the conduct of elections as compared to 2013. We think there should be a thorough and impartial investigation into these allegations of ousting polling agents from polling station and problems in the RTS,” says Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, who heads PILDAT.

“There should be a high-powered commission that should investigate the issue and fix responsibility and this commission should be above the ECP,” he says. He hopes the new ruling party leader, Imran Khan, would help in investigating all polls related matters.

 

Waqar Gillani

waqar gillani
The author is a staff reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]

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