‘Free, Fair and Transparent?’

Written by Munir Ishrat Rahmani  •  Cover Stories  •  May 2013 PDF Print E-mail

With massive allegations of rigging reported from major constituencies and lack of a firm and assertive Election Commissioner, Elections 2013 will be remembered for all the wrong reasons.

Election 2013 was a mixed plate: there was the more than usual rhetoric, target killings of candidates, bomb blasts, explosions in public meetings, kidnapping of a high profile candidate, continued threats from the Taliban,  a pinch of drama provided by the fall from a platform of one of the top leaders, rendering him incapable of winding up an aggressive election campaign, considerable mismanagement at some of the polling stations and allegations of ‘rigging’ combined with agitation, boycott or ‘Dharna’ in major cities, to add spice to the whole show.

The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) had conducted the last elections in 2008 successfully and this time had the additional advantage of modern technology for conducting free and fair polls and compiling accurate results. The ECP, under the chairmanship of Justice (Retired) Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim, was expected to make Election 2013 a great success and a landmark event as it was being held after the completion of a five-year term by a democratically-elected government. The Commission had the services of Rangers and Army at its disposal for assistance. Major political parties provided great motivation through aggressive campaigning and people were urged to come out in large numbers on May 11 to cast their vote despite Taliban threats of disrupting the Elections. Unfortunately, the exercise turned out to be a fiasco in some areas leading to bitter disappointment and severe criticism from all corners over the much-trumpeted but rather mismanaged general elections.

Those who had seen the previous elections of 2008 being conducted in a commendable manner and without much hue and cry, despite the parties in power losing a large number of seats, expected a much improved performance from the Chief Election Commissioner and his team in 2013. He made repeated pledges of conducting transparent elections in a manner that would be remembered for years to come. He was right: the Elections 2013 will certainly be remembered but for different reasons. The detailed planning of the exercise, provisioning of election equipment and training of the staff designated to conduct voting at polling stations left a lot to be desired. The Army was available on call but was not deployed at or near the polling stations to ensure non-interference by any undesirable elements.

A large number of complaints of irregularities from all provinces kept pouring in on the election day. The allegations of ‘rigged elections’ voiced by the media and political parties pertained mainly to the actual process of polling on  May 11 but it was observed that the rigging had started much before. It started when the Chief Election Commissioner succumbed to the pressure of some political parties by short-circuiting the process of genuine scrutiny required under articles 62 and 63 of the Constitution. Many candidates who did not meet the criteria were allowed to contest the election.

There were other forms of ‘organized rigging’ like the delimitation of constituencies in Karachi without the database of a fresh census. This was done even after the issuance of the election schedule! The order of the ECP did not meet the constitutional requirement and it was viewed as a biased decision. Another example of ‘rigging’ was the disenfranchisement of women in some areas of Pakistan. It was with the consent of the ECP that women were barred from voting in certain areas of Swat, Malakand, Dir, Mianwali, etc. This was also a blatant violation of the constitution. When an election commission’s credibility becomes doubtful, then the entire process of election can never be expected to be transparent, free and fair.

The ECP appeared to be quite weak in putting its decisions to practice. Either the local administration at various places did not fully cooperate with the ECP or it was its inherent weakness that on May 11 it could not ensure timely provisioning of proper staff, polling paraphernalia and facilities for the voters at the polling stations in a number of constituencies. There were many polling stations in various parts of the country where polling could not start on time. Karachi suffered the most with constituencies where polling started only after three to four hours of the scheduled time. In one strange instance in NA-250, the candidate of Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaaf himself brought ballot boxes in his personal car to the polling station and nobody from the ECP questioned or checked this irregularity at all! Perhaps, ‘rigging’ needed to be re-defined in the annals of the ECP.

Apart from the general mismanagement, the polling staff also did not perform their assigned task diligently and allowed irregularities inside the polling stations. Some party workers came forward with video recordings of bogus votes being cast in Lahore, Faisalabad and Karachi but the ECP failed to take any action. Jamaat-e-Islami and Muttaheda Qaumi Movement were the first to protest against the irregularities noticed at polling stations in NA-250 and NA-246/248, constituencies, respectively.  Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf raised its voice against rigging in many constituencies in the Punjab. They accused Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) of influencing the polling through the presence of unauthorized persons inside the polling stations who were indulging in irregularities. Similar complaints were reported from interior Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. All parties cried foul.

The Election Commission decided to order re-polling at the polling stations where they thought the polling was disturbed and voters had not been able to cast their votes due to time constraints, irregularities by some outsiders or late arrival of the polling staff and materials. Re-polling was conducted on May 21 in the country, except in Karachi where it was carried out on May 19. The polling in Karachi was conducted under strict security arrangements provided by the police, Rangers and the Army but the turnout remained just about 15 percent or so as against about 55 percent on May 11. The PPP, MQM and Jamaat-e-Islami boycotted the re-polling in Karachi, despite the efforts of Tehreek-e-Insaaf to motivate their voters, thus adversely affecting the turnout. They had, however, the consolation of winning one national and two provincial assembly seats in the one-sided elections. After all the chaos and drama that had consumed Karachi following allegations of rigging, re-polling did little to enhance PTI’s image.

With all said and done and setting the allegations of rigging aside, Election 2013 will be remembered for the simple fact that out of the 86 million registered voters, 55 to 57 percent came out on May 11 to exercise their right to vote. The urban areas saw long queues at polling stations that included large numbers of motivated ‘debutants’ to the voting process who had either just attained the age to become eligible to vote or belonged to the ‘reluctant elite’ that always preferred to stay at home and watch the elections on television. It signified political awareness and a definite change in the mindset of the citizens who decided to come out of their comfort zone in the hostile weather and defied threats of the Taliban to attain the satisfaction of electing their representatives for the assemblies.

Complaints of rigging are often heard in almost all countries that have a manual system of voting and vote-counting. The whole exercise, however, could have been better managed by the ECP had their team gone into the intricate details of the polling process at all polling stations and tied down the loose ends well in time. If required, the services of National Database Registration Authority (NADRA) could have been utilized for verification of thumb impressions of the voters, which was used at the time of casting the vote. Another useful feature introduced this time was the photograph of the voter in the list to eliminate the possibility of cheating. In retrospect, one felt that the Election Commission of Pakistan needed a more dynamic leader of the organization in view of the gigantic and sensitive task of conducting elections in a country where corruption is ingrained in the culture and an absolutely unbiased, assertive and firm approach is required to meet the challenge. 

Munir Ishrat Rahmani is a former Colonel of the Pakistan Army. He is a graduate of the Command and Staff College, Quetta and has fought during the 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pakistan Wars. He was stationed in East Pakistan during the 1971 conflict and is the author of a forthcoming book on Indo-Pak military history.

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