March Issue 2008
Fair or Foul?
That there were irregularities in the elections in Karachi is no longer in doubt. On February 22, two clips were posted on popular video-sharing website YouTube.com showing a woman, posing as an MQM supporter, enter a polling station in NA-250 with a hidden camera. She was given eight stamped ballot papers and voted for the MQM in all of them. Damning footage aired by Geo News offered further proof of widespread rigging. Three separate segments, filmed at polling stations in Karachi, show men tearing up ballot papers and preparing new ones, capturing a polling station and frantically marking dozens of new ballot papers, and forcing voters at a female polling booth to mark ballots at gunpoint, respectively. Although none of the videos aired on Geo identify which party the men belonged to, they clearly give lie to government claims that the elections were free of manipulation.
Matters took a disturbing twist just a few hours after the NA-250 rigging video was posted, as the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) issued a notification to all internet service providers in the country, instructing them to block access to YouTube immediately. The reason given for the blocking was that YouTube had offensive videos of an anti-Islamic nature. Interestingly, the video cited on the PTA notification as being blasphemous, which was a trailer for a documentary by anti-Muslim Dutch politician Geert Wilders, had been posted on January 28, meaning it took the PTA nearly a month to take notice of this video. Also, that particular trailer happens to still be available for viewing at dozens of unblocked sites.
Suspicions that all was not kosher in Karachi were initially raised soon after polls closed. Apart from NA-250, two other MQM wins — NA-249 and NA-257 — have come under the closest scrutiny, although doubts have been raised about the MQM’s margin of victories in all of Karachi’s National Assembly seats.
At around 10 p.m. on election night, Geo News reported that MQM Deputy Convenor Dr Farooq Sattar was trailing PPP candidate Habib Memon by nearly 16,000 votes in the battle for NA-249. It seemed that the influential MQM leader was going to suffer a humiliating defeat in his own backyard. Through the night, the private news channels kept providing regular updates to all the National Assembly races. The only exception was NA-249. From 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. there was no further news on the race, until a sudden announcement was made that Sattar had emerged victorious by 11,500 votes. It didn’t take long for the PPP to start crying foul.
The PPP anti-rigging cell issued a report the day after the elections, accusing the MQM of manipulating the results. The main thrust of the charges was that Farooq Sattar, knowing he was on the verge of defeat, made multiple phone calls to the nazim of Saddar Town, which resulted in ballot boxes being sent to the office of the nazim rather than the office of the Returning Officer. Habib Memon also claims that he was ahead by 45,000 votes by 4 a.m. before a call from the governor to the Returning Officer pressurised him to ensure an MQM victory.
Memon says that he has filed a complaint with the Election Commission of Pakistan, asking for the result to be nullified. He says, “I have submitted ballot papers that were already stamped with the MQM symbol along with a video tape that shows rigging.” The MQM election cell, although unwilling to discuss Memon’s and all other rigging charges, alleges that two armed PPP activists were arrested at a polling station while its polling agents were also beaten up in the constituency. The election cell also claims that the PPP was involved in rigging in NA-253 and that its activists beat up an MQM polling agent.
A similar story is told about polling in NA-257 by Belgian politician Erik de Bruyn, who had been invited by the PPP to monitor the elections. Bruyn chose to spend election day monitoring about 20 polling stations that had been declared sensitive in NA-257 and was shocked by what he saw. He says that only a few of the polling stations he visited had PPP scrutineers. He attributes their absence to the fact that 15 PPP scrutineers were murdered on February 18. He, as well as the PPP anti-rigging cell, also claim that other scrutineers were tortured and abducted. The dangers to PPP polling agents were illustrated when three of them were killed by unknown assailants on February 22.
Bruyn, who describes some of the polling stations he visited “decorated as headquarters of the MQM,” says in a report he issued on his monitoring activities, “In the evening I went to the central counting office of the NA-257 district. What I saw and photographed there defies everything imaginable. Stacks of bags full of election forms were broken open. Forms were being filled in or changed in the corridors of the court hall. Other original forms were thrown away.”
What makes this seat, and most others in Karachi, so intriguing is that they bucked the trend of a low turnout in the rest of the country. NA-249 saw a turnout of over 55%, an increase of more than 20 percentage points from 2002, while NA-250 and NA-257 saw an 11 and 7% increase, respectively. This was despite the fact that most observers expected a significant drop in turnout, given the fact that the Jamaat-e-Islami, the city’s second largest party in terms of vote count in 2002, was sitting out the elections this time around. In such a situation it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the turnout figures in Karachi were artificially inflated.
Nadir Hassan is a Pakistan-based journalist and assistant editor at Newsline.