July Issue 2015

By | News & Politics | Published 4 years ago

Local elections will take place in Sindh and Punjab on  September 30, 2015. The exercise will be much larger than it was in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). If lessons are not learnt from the KP elections and harvested in due time, voters will suffer, incumbent parties will face serious humiliation and the whole exercise could become a controversial one in Punjab and Sindh as well.

A mindless blame game was triggered in the aftermath of the KP local elections that deterred the serious investigation required to improve the conduct of future elections. Instead of dwelling on symptoms, root causes of the problem must be uncovered.

This article attempts to probe the relationship between the violence that erupted on and after polling day and the polling arrangements in the KP local elections. Though security arrangements could also be examined, they are not the point of focus.

Firstly, we could state the nature and scale of violence. In a highly contested environment, according to Free and Fair Election Network, there were serious incidents of violence in 19 observed districts on polling day.  These included “clashes between supporters of contesting candidates, aerial firing, scuffles between voters and polling/security officials.” Many female polling stations experienced chaos. This paved the way for booth-capturing, snatching of ballot boxes, fake voting and preventing opponents from casting their votes.

Peshawar valley consists of five districts — Peshawar, Charsadda, Mardan, Swabi and Nowshera. There was  a riot-like situation in these districts and the highest number of cases of violence and killings. Sadly, 30 people lost their lives in the province and most of the deaths occurred in Peshawar valley. In short, no recent election has witnessed this level of violence which not only made the much-needed local election controversial but also pitched the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) and the KP government against each other. It deepened political polarisation at a time when harmonisation was the need of the hour, as the fight against terrorism and extremism is at its peak.

Often objective realities are independent of subjective desires. Whenever actors become blind to the outcome of their actions, they suffer from self-inflicted disasters. The PTI-JI coalition government proved this Japanese proverb right: “A vision without strategy is daydreaming, and strategy without vision a nightmare.”

Interestingly, the pre-poll campaign remained extremely peaceful in a province that was infested with terrorists and extremists. Then what triggered the violence that continued even two weeks after the polling day? Was it because of some conspiracy or merely an outcome of poor planning? In my opinion, it was primarily an outcome of extremely poor planning — the lack of capacity to anticipate and a gap in preparedness. The moment tension started rising due to extremely slow polling, those who wanted to exploit the situation became active — and it became a free-for-all afterwards.

The root cause of the chaos was a consequence of the huge gap between the demand resulting from the massive number of seats created under the Local Government Act (LG Act) and the arrangements made by the ECP to cater to those needs. Both institutions already had tense relations. Hence, poor coordination between the government and the ECP could be anticipated.

Chaos was imminent as the prevailing conditions were bound to cause a narrow bottleneck. Unlike previous local elections, this time the ECP did not make any vital statistics available on its website. As a result, experts could not provide any advice to the ECP.

On May 29, I went to Peshawar to observe the elections. There I managed to get some important information regarding poll arrangements. For instance, about the number of polling stations/booths, strength of polling staff, number of seats, ballot papers and contesting candidates. The findings were shocking.  I immediately tweeted, “Alert: polling arrangements can cater to only 23 per cent turnout. Expect chaos if it goes up.”

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Consider this — each voter had to obtain seven ballot papers, five for Village Councils and one each for District and Tehsil Councils. Three desks were established in each booth. At the first desk, polling staff were supposed to read aloud the name and CNIC number of the incoming voter, then mark the thumb above the nail with indelible ink, cross a line on his/her details on the roll, record his/her CNIC number on each counterfoil and sign them, stamp the back of each ballot paper before issuance of two ballot papers to him/her. This process was repeated at the next two desks. This took on average about six to eight minutes. For each voter, polling staff had to make as many as 42 entries. The voter, after receiving all seven ballots, would go behind the secrecy screen and stamp each ballot paper, wrap the papers and then drop them in one ballot box. This would take another two to three minutes. In all, the process took about 10 minutes. Since, other voters were also going through the process simultaneously, this would reduce the overall time one voter needed to complete the cycle. Even then, each voter took six to seven minutes to cast his/her vote.

In total there were 13,358,663 registered voters and just 33,633 polling booths, only 2,022 more than the 2013 general elections. This means, on average, about 400 voters were allocated to one polling booth. From 8 am to 5 pm, there were 540 minutes available for polling. Keeping in view the time each voter required to cast seven ballot papers, the polling arrangements at one polling booth were made only for 77-80 voters. According to this calculation, the polling arrangements were made for only 20 per cent or a maximum 25 per cent turn ut.

The LG Act caused high social mobilisation and participation — something worth generous praise. It created 41,762 seats in 5,295 electoral areas. On average, one electoral area had nearly eight seats. This created huge interest amongst the electorates — a person who had little influence in his area thought he could win. As a result an unprecedented number of candidates (84,420) were thrown into the field. In other words, there were 16 in each electoral area. This does not seem to be too high in comparison to contesting candidates in general elections, but due to overlapping and concentration of various seats in one area, the LG Act created intense contestation. It is worth noting here that in the 2001 and 2005 local elections, there were only 20,097 and 12,818 seats respectively in the province. This time round, they were nearly four times higher.

In short, polling arrangements were highly inadequate in light of intense contestation and massive voter mobilisation. This was a recipe for chaos.

In Peshawar, I visited a number of polling stations in the morning. There were long queues everywhere. Most people said they had been standing in the queue for 40-50 minutes. In the Gulbahar area, polling was halted at a female station, and the men who had accompanied the women were waiting outside in the dozens. As time passed, I could easily see the restlessness growing, rumours spreading and chaos building up, turning into scuffles. I had to ask the people (as I could not understand Pashto) what was happening. Someone said the ballot papers had been stolen, another said polling staff were found stamping ballots etc. Our female election observer who was inside the polling station, texted me: “Due to untrained and inadequate staff, polling has been stopped.” The moment chaos built up, unscrupulous party activists and supporters of candidates tried to take full advantage of the situation. This is what happened in most polling stations where violence took place. The government had not anticipated the turnout and the inevitable trouble if voting was delayed, and hence was not prepared to handle the situation.

Had there been an adequate number of polling stations and polling booths managed by trained and sufficient number of staff, violence would not have taken place on that scale. For instance, in order to cater to a 50 per cent turnout, based on the above-mentioned estimates, the ECP was required to establish at least 66,000 polling booths and 30,000 polling stations. This would require a corresponding increase in polling staff. Therefore, the best way forward was to hold elections in three phases. There are lessons to be learnt here.

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Lesson one: In Punjab and Sindh, the ECP is urged to hold local elections in phases, as was the practice in the 2001 and 2005 local elections. This is the norm in the Indian general elections. Results should be made public on the completion of all phases. Twenty-one days after the KP local election, the results are yet to be announced. A harmful precedent has been set, and may be repeated as no party is making any noise regarding this delay.

Now to consider the scale of local elections in the Punjab. Each voter will be issued five ballots, and each voter will consume about five minutes to cast five votes. During the nine hours or 540 minutes polling time available at each polling booth, only 108 voters will be able to cast a ballot. This means the arrangements can cater to only 32.40 million (65 per cent) voters out of 50 million. If the ECP tries to use the polling arrangements of the 2013 general elections, we may experience a KP-like situation.

If the ECP tries to hold local elections in Punjab in one day at 65 per cent turnout, then it would need to augment its arrangements/resources to a huge degree, which does not seem feasible. The ECP cannot train one million polling personnel and establish 300,000 polling booths. However, if elections take place in phases, fewer personnel would be required. The ECP could thoroughly train core presiding officers and they could be deployed from one phase to the other. This would definitely improve the quality of elections. In my opinion, local elections in Sindh and Punjab must be divided into four phases in order to maintain a certain standard.

Lesson two: Since the 2013 general elections, the ECP has shared very little or no information with the public. After 21 days of the KP local elections, nothing is available on its website regarding the elections. The ECP needs to improve the working of its research and publication wing and all statistical information should be made available,  in order to get timely feedback from stakeholders and scholars.

Lesson three: Improve coordination between the administration, police and ECP; divide responsibilities and duties and make them public knowledge.

Lesson four: Learning from the 2013 general elections and KP local elections, make sure the polling staff fully understand their duties and functions and act accordingly. Also, it is imperative to make independent and adequate boarding and lodging arrangements for polling staff. They must not be left at the mercy of local influentials.

Lesson five: Political parties and candidates should deploy fully trained polling agents. A vigilant and trained polling agent can prevent corrupt practices at the time of polling and result preparation.

The ECP is already under tremendous scrutiny. It needs to improve its image through better organised elections. This is possible only when it guards its independence vehemently and insulates itself from political influence. The forthcoming local elections are a serious challenge and they must be seen to be credible.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s July 2015 issue.