Questions regarding the 2013 general elections are not only keeping the election tribunals in business past their stipulated timeframe but have increasingly become a rallying cry for public protests against the winning party — a first since the 1977 general elections. The 2013 elections, however, have a unique distinction in that the ruling PML-N also leads in the number of petitions filed with the election tribunals.
The situation is symptomatic of an electoral system that is in dire need of substantial reforms — a position backed by objective data that can no longer be ignored or trivialised any further.
The first set of issues relates to the institutional makeup and functioning of the ECP authorised constitutionally to hold elections in Pakistan. In the run-up to the 2013 Elections, members of the reformed commission took over under the amended constitutional provisions following the adoption of 18th and 20th amendments. While all hailed the process of political consensus-building around the nomination of the Chief Election Commissioner, the issue of transparent and public selection of the provincial members of the Commission, almost as powerful as the Chief Election Commissioner after the amendments, failed to draw the required attention of the political parties and the media. Similarly, the issue of institutional, financial and procedural dependence of the ECP remained intact even after the constitutional amendments.
These lacunae went on to compromise the Election Commission’s performance later.
First, the provision for the second senior-most judge of the Supreme Court to assume the responsibilities of the acting CEC, the need for approval of the president for even any procedural change and the reliance of the Commission on the judicial officials in key positions as Returning Officer and District Returning Officers seriously undermined the Commission’s independence. The Commission, while constitutionally autonomous in effect, lacked the right composition and structure to translate its independence into authority.
It is pertinent to note that the push to get the judicial officers to act as ROs and DROs came from almost all political parties including the PTI.
A clear sign of the weakened control of the ECP on the processes of elections became clear soon after. The widely-publicised episodes of personal interpretation of Article 62 and 63 by the ROs prompted the ECP to declare its lack of control over their conduct as early as April 2013. The ECP’s control further deteriorated with the collapse of its plans to control the pre-election campaign period through as many as 400 monitoring teams leaving the centralised control and the ECP’s presence as a check in tatters.
A measure of the ECP’s loss of grip is further evident in incidents of use of state resources ranging from the use of state property and vehicles for election material and campaigning to as many as 927 of the 1,617 postings and transfers in key government departments that Fafen’s long term observers tracked.
The issues revolving around the process of the 2013 elections, however, were not the only ones that overwhelmed the administration of the election. The structural issues plaguing the constituency delimitation system, an issue highlighted in the context of demarcation of the Karachi constituencies under Supreme Court’s orders, essentially exposed the more prevalent skewed delimitation and, more importantly, the distribution of constituencies among and within the provinces and regions undermining the principles of equal and universal suffrage. The distribution of National Assembly constituencies reveal almost twice as many seats allocated to FATA and FRs compared to their share in the national population — an estimated 2 per cent of National population holding 3.5 per cent of National Assembly seats. While the distribution across other regions and provinces is almost equivalent, the real issue lies in the allocation of seats within each region.
The skewed distribution within regions betrayed a lack of any principle for the constituency delimitation. From the perspective of estimated population, Dadu and Dir’s one million estimated people are represented by one representative each on one extreme while other districts in these same provinces — Sukkur in Sindh and Battagram in KP — are awarded one seat for the estimated populations of 6.25 and 4.25 lac respectively. From the perspective of registered voters, Haripur’s 531,865 voters and South Waziristan’s 100,338 voters are represented by one MNA each.
In the pre-election phase, there however were areas that showed improvements, particularly in the form of better and more accurate CNIC-based electoral rolls as well as alternative systems for voter information. Similarly, the ECP’s efforts to make the data available to the wider public for scrutiny showed a marked improvement compared to the previous elections. From the availability of the polling schemes for most constituencies on the website as well as the willingness of the ECP to allow unprecedented number of observers to oversee the elections were measures that raised the level of transparency hitherto unknown in Pakistan.
The efforts to make the polling scheme more transparent and widely available however failed to control this critical process from being undermined in as many as an estimated 7 per cent polling stations. Furthermore, the detailed number of registered voters in the polling scheme did not match the number of registered voters for 93 National Assembly constituencies showing an absolute discrepancy of 246,857 votes. The discrepancy in registered voters ranges between 31,344 in NA-71 to just 1 vote in NA-24 and NA-214. Whether such discrepancies were a result of any clerical mistake or lesser innocent reasons has not been determined as yet.
Similarly, while the overall number of registered voters increased by over 5 million from 80.9 million in 2008 to 86.2 million for the 2013 election since the 2008 elections, the increase in voters remained seriously skewed across regions as well as demographics. For instance, of the 266 constituencies analysed, 100 constituencies actually show a decrease in the number of registered voters compared to the 2008 elections. The drop in registered voters ranged from as many as 241,692 voters in NA-266 to 580 in NA-168.
On May 11, Fafen fielded its observers in 263 National Assembly constituencies and observed 38,274 polling stations. The observation findings revealed a situation where the ECP failed to maintain and exercise its control in several areas. As many as 71,397 violations and irregularities, ranging from minor to serious, were recorded during the largest election observation exercise in the country’s history. However, compared to the 2008 elections, there were areas of improvement in several key areas of the polling process.
A comparative analysis with the 2008 elections showed improvements in the processes involving voter identification (from 12 per cent polling stations in 2008 to 3 per cent in 2013), ballot processing (from 3 per cent in 2008 to 1 per cent in 2013) and incidents of polling station capture (from 10 per cent in 2008 to 1 per cent in 2013).
The incidents of security officials’ interference and, more critically, the irregularities in vote counting increased comparatively. For instance, the incidence of counting of invalid votes was observed in as many as 10 per cent of the polling stations as against 5 per cent of the polling stations in the 2008 elections. The number of polling stations where the authentication of each ballot was not checked before counting increased from around 4 per cent to 5 per cent, and the number of polling stations where the copy of the polling station result was not displayed outside the polling station increased from 15 per cent in 2008 to 15.3 per cent in 2013.
A critical and disconcerting dynamic of the 2013 elections is the significant increase in the number of rejected votes compared to the previous elections. As a percentage of votes polled, it is easy to overlook the serious nature of this mystery. The rejected votes in the 266 constituencies were 7.6 lac in 2002, 9.6 lac in 2008, and a whopping 1.5 million in 2013. As a percentage of polled votes, the dynamic looks more insignificant in that the rejected votes constituted 2.6 per cent of the total votes polled in 2002, 2.7 per cent in 2008 and 3.2 per cent in 2013.
A closer look, however, reveals a disturbing picture. First, the volume of votes if weighed with comparable votes of political parties make rejected votes the fourth largest party in Pakistan ahead of JUI-F — the party’s close to 1.48 million votes helped it gain as many as 11 NA seats. Second and more important is the skewed distribution of the rejected votes at the constituency level. The range of rejected votes had NA-266 on one extreme with over 25,000 rejected votes and NA-53 on the other extreme with zero rejected votes. Among constituencies, 178 of the 266 constituencies had rejected votes ranging from 5,000 to 10,000 while 13 had rejected votes exceeding 10,000 with two constituencies recording rejected votes in excess of 24,000.
From yet another perspective, the rejected votes are significant to at least 35 constituencies from all over Pakistan where the margin of victory is less than the number of such votes. More important than any other consideration, the mere fact that votes of more than 1.5 million people who braved the threats, long queues and heat of May 11 did not get their choice count, a point of concern for all major stakeholders.
The breakdown of the rejected votes in the 2013 elections by province/region has Punjab leading with 850,735. Sindh is second with 381,757 rejected votes followed by Khyber Pukhtunkhwa (176,903), Balochistan (77,180), FATA (13,694) and ICT’s two constituencies (2,448). The absolute numbers notwithstanding, it is important to note that the rejected votes as percentage of total votes polled has Balochistan leading with 5.5 per cent of the polled votes in the province declared rejected followed by Sindh with 3.9 per cent of the votes polled getting rejected. Khyber Pukhtunkhwa follows with 3.2 per cent of the votes polled getting rejected while 2.9 per cent of the votes polled in Punjab were declared rejected. The two constituencies of Islamabad have less than 1 per cent of the votes rejected.
Coupled with these on-the-ground issues, the reported failure of the electronic result management system put in place for accurate and timely sharing of the result added to the election result drama giving rise to speculations and rumours. The ECP, while taking notice of several serious irregularities in several constituencies and ordering recounts and re-polls in select polling stations, dragged its feet in playing a more assertive role. With the exception of NA-103 Hafizabad, the ECP did not take the complaints of the losing candidates seriously enough to cancel or order a re-poll on its own in the whole of any constituency — even where, such as several constituencies in Karachi, their officials admitted to the possibility of serious irregularities.
In NA-103, a PML-N candidate’s complaints led the ECP to order a recount, de-notification of the winner and a subsequent order for fresh elections in the whole of the constituency: a template of ECP’s rightful and legal assertiveness under Section 103 of Representation of People’s Act (ROPA) that it failed to apply in other situations.
Following the results, the legal battle over results of as many as 410 National and Provincial Assembly seats ended in the 14 election tribunals under retired High Court judges ensued with an agreed term of petition period not exceeding 120 days. As of July 31, 2013, 92 cases lingered on beyond their stipulated time and more than a year since the establishment of the tribunals. The exercise, while showcasing significant improvement compared to the tribunals of the years past, has failed to win brownies with the opposition, particularly the PTI that has consistently alleged rigging in the 2013 elections.
Given these and several other issues, the political parties in general and the two parties, the PML-N and the PTI in particular, need to get serious about an honest assessment of the 2013 elections and a reform package towards realisation of a robust, transparent and efficient electoral system.
As the committee for reforms starts its deliberations, the government will be ill-advised to forestall the issue any further. The PTI and other parties agitating the issue have to focus on getting their grievances accounted for in formation of a better electoral system through the committee and the parliament. For once, let the politicians decide the rules of the game among themselves and restore the voters’ belief in a system that translates their will honestly.