February Issue 2008
Neither Free Nor Fair?
By Shahzada Irfan Ahmed | Published 13 years ago
As February 18 draws closer, complaints regarding foul play in the electioneering process are mounting. A common observation is that the code of conduct issued by the Election Commission of Pakistan is being flouted by political parties, government departments and local bodies’ representatives with impunity.
It is feared that irregularities observed in the past elections will be multiplied many times over in the 2008 elections, given the high stakes President General (retd.) Musharraf and his men have in them.
The UN Special Envoy for Human Rights Hina Jilani, while addressing a US Congressional hearing on December 14, 2007, observed that there was “no point in monitoring the elections or watching the polls — the rigging has already happened.”
Pointing to the unfair removal of impartial judges of the superior court prior to the upcoming general elections, she emphasised the fact that elections in the absence of an independent judiciary would have no credibility at all. Since the judiciary oversees the election process, makes a note of all violations and adjudicates in cases of electoral disputes, this time, pro-Musharraf candidates may walk away with a clean slate in the absence of an independent judiciary.
In a bid to pre-empt allegations of massive poll rigging, Musharraf spoke at length on the issue in an interview with CNN last month. “We haven’t even gone for elections and they are talking of rigging and everything… This is a clear indication of their preparation for defeat. Now when they lose, they’ll have a good rationale, that it is all rigged, it is all fraud. In Pakistan, the loser always cries, and that is the unfortunate part.”
Even more controversial was the general’s remark that the world should see the country with Pakistan’s eyes, made during his image-building trip to Europe in the last week of January. He advocated a Pakistani brand of democracy, bearing little similarity to the internationally accepted concept of democracy.
Given the manner in which the elections are being conducted, the chances that they will be free and fair are remote. Hundreds of complaints regarding irregularities in transfers and postings of civil servants, delimitation of union councils, electoral rolls, nomination papers, appointment of polling staff, etcetera, are gathering dust at the Election Commission office, which has not been able to address even a fraction of them.
Recently, monitors of the Free and Fair Elections Network (FAFEN) — a non-profit coalition of 30 leading Pakistani civil society organisations established in 2006 to observe the election process, educate voters and advocate for electoral and democratic reform — travelled the length and breadth of the country to get first-hand information of the electioneering process. They observed that the District Police Officers (DPOs) in many districts of the country had been allowing the PML-Q candidates a free hand to hold public rallies, despite the imposition of Section 144 and the state of emergency. On the other hand, the police have been arresting workers of the opposition parties on charges of attempting to hold rallies.
They also pointed out that local government officials were literally running the election campaigns of certain candidates, and even providing official cars and premises to them. The nominations of thousands of political workers in criminal cases after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto is also being seen as a ploy to influence the election results. The PPP would suffer as most of these workers would be constantly on the run, in order to avoid arrests by law enforcement agencies.
Pre-poll problems aside, FAFEN chief Sarwar Bari cautions against polling day and post-poll rigging and warns that political parties should make proper arrangements to counter any such moves. Bari says it is generally difficult to pinpoint instances of vote-buying and voting under duress, as to identify the partisan behaviour of polling staff, but he believes it is easy to detect capture of booths and polling stations and intimidation of polling agents by vested interests.
“Sometimes chaos is created intentionally in order to frighten voters from polling or to stuff the ballot boxes,” he forewarns. “In the past, it has been observed that women’s polling stations were more likely to have fake voting than the male ones as most women did not have their photographs on their ID cards.”
The issue of ghost polling stations is expected to pose another challenge. Political parties and candidates must work out a scheme whereby they check the existence of each and every polling station prior to the polling, suggests Bari.
About post-poll rigging, Sarwar says that polling agents in the past elections complained that once the vote count had been completed, the presiding officer at the polling station failed to give them signed copies of the results and, in fact, would not even declare the official results. This time around, however, the official results will be announced at the polling station level. Moreover, USAID has provided transparent ballot boxes to minimise chances of stuffing fake votes inside them.
“This step, I hope, will enhance the confidence of the parties in the counting process,” Bari says. “However, political parties and candidates must instruct their polling agents to get signed statements of the tallies from all the polling stations so that all the stakeholders are in a position to add up the results of all the polling stations,” he adds.
Bari cautions that parties should also keep track of the postal ballot papers from outstation voters, as they will be counted at the Returning Officers’ offices. In his view, at the end of the day, vigilant polling agents can substantially reduce rigging.