August issue 2006

By | News & Politics | Published 17 years ago

As General Pervez Musharraf makes ‘high profile’ trips to the political hotspots in the country seeking support for himself and his allies, one office in Islamabad is busy — quietly changing the rules of the game.

On July 13 the Election Commission made its ‘good’ intentions known to the nation when it unveiled its plan to reinvent the wheel and start preparing the electoral rolls. The Chief Election Commissioner, Justice (retd) Qazi Muhammad Farooq, said in categoric terms that due to demographic changes and the creation of new administrative units, new electoral rolls need to be prepared. However, he also clearly stated that the new Computerised National Identity Cards (CNICs) would be the basic document for proving voter eligibility.

Within two weeks of the crowded press conference, the CEC reversed his own decision of enrolling citizens in the electoral lists on the basis of only CNICs. On July 21, the Prime Minister’s Secretariat issued a notification to the provincial election commissioners saying: “In view of the fact that a large number of citizens of voting age are still without national identity cards and the enrolment process is being undertaken between July-September 2006, the Prime Minister has been pleased to direct that the validity of old NICs issued under the National Registration Act 1973 for the purpose of electoral rolls only (and not for any other purpose), may be extended till further orders.”

However, the Secretary of the Election Commission, Kanwar Muhammad Dilshad, told reporters, “The feedback on the operation of preparations for fresh electoral rolls has indicated that the pace of issuance of Computerised National Identity Cards has not attained the desired level.”

Currently, some 15 to 17 million people throughout the country are without CNICs. Now, any one possessing an old NIC under the National Registration Act, 1973, has become eligible for casting votes in the 2007 general elections.

Perhaps referring to pro-Musharraf politicians, Dilshad also said that leaders of some political parties, as well as spokespersons of various civic society organisations, have also been criticising the restriction of the CNIC for voter enrolment on the grounds that it will deprive a large number of eligible voters from registration and their right to vote.

Inside sources, however, maintain that the EC always had plans to base the electoral rolls on the old NICs which exist in countless numbers with no government records.

On July 14, 2006, the EC advertised a Request for Proposal (RFP ECP/CERS/2006) titled, Computerised Electoral Rolls System (CERS), which seeks bids for software development, data entry, printing and logistics of electoral rolls, project management, training, implementation, maintenance and support on a turn-key basis.

Highly placed sources said the RFP was prepared long before the July 21 decision and mentions NIC cards instead of CNICs in no less than 19 different instances in the text. It is also learnt that the term, CNIC, was changed to NIC in the original draft of the RFP within an hour of its preparation, indicating the extreme interest of holding elections on the basis of the old NICs. And it was no typographical error, but on the verbal orders of the chief election commissioner. The CEC’s decision for the ‘larger public interest’ speaks volumes about the authenticity of the electoral rolls.

In fact, the Election Commission should not be preparing fresh lists through its massive door-to-door campaign. Instead, it should get online data free of cost though an executive order or pay Rs5 for each citizen and access authentic NADRA database. Constitu-tional bodies, such as the Election Commission of Pakistan, Supreme Court, National Assembly, Senate, Tax Ombudsman and higher courts of the country have the authority to seek any information from any subordinate government institution whenever required.

NADRA’s information bank stores the most the authentic and updated data base about Pakistani citizens. The authority says its database covers about 55 million of the adult population. Relying on the NADRA database can save thousands of man-hours and money, besides making the electoral rolls more credible and transparent. Many senior EC officials maintain that it would be a Herculean task to prepare an authentic electoral list of 70 million voters in time for the elections in mid-2007.

For each of the 70 million adult citizens (voters), the EC would require the CNIC, name, father’s or husband’s name, gender, religion, temporary and permanent addresses. At the rate of Rs 5 per person, the EC would have to pay NADRA Rs 350 million.

In his first press conference, the chief election commissioner had estimated the expenses for fresh electoral rolls at over Rs 1 billion. The country would save Rs 650 million if the EC bought the data from NADRA.

Technically, the EC can seek assistance from any government institution. Article 220 of the Constitution reads: “It shall be the duty of all executive authorities in the Federation and in the Provinces to assist the Commissioner and the Election Commission in the discharge of his or their functions.” The EC’s decision to validate the old National Identity Card (NIC) alongside the computerised one is bound to raise public anger and ring alarm bells about the transparency and fairness of the upcoming elections.

The old NIC cards were declared null and void through an interior ministry notification in December 2004. It is no secret that there are countless old illegal ID cards with people who have not surrendered them, hoping to use the same for the elections and other fraudulent activities.

The CEC’s decision implies that it has no confidence in NADRA, which was set up with the mandate to develop a nationwide database and prepare computerised identity cards against the backdrop of Pakistani ID cards being held by hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees.

When contacted, NADRA Chairman, Saleem Moeen, told Newsline that the authority has a valid database of 53 million adult citizens of Pakistan and is working hard to close the 70 million target before the elections. EC Secretary, Dilshad, meanwhile, maintains that a large number of eligible voters, especially women and those residing in remote villages and far-flung hilly areas, are still without Computerised National Identity Cards.

The secretary of the Election Commission has downplayed the repeated mention of NIC in the RFP instead of CNIC by terming it as nothing unusual as it was done to avoid confusion. “If you look at your CNIC, even there it is called Qaumi Shanakhti Card (National Identity Card),” Dilshad told Newsline, rejecting the fears of holding elections on the basis of anything but the CNIC. Opposition politicians fear the latest decision will affect demographic representation in interior Sindh, NWFP and Balochistan where the MMA and the PPP had won in the last elections. The recently held AJK elections, also held on the basis of old NIC cards, have been marred by the allegations of rigging by the Muslim League and the Khalid Ibrahim-led People’s Party.

Meanwhile, NADRA Chairman Saleem Moeen said the authority could deploy its staff on double shifts and even seven days a week to meet the Election Commission target of CNIC-possessing adult citizens. He maintains that even with registration at an average rate of 50,000 cards a day, the authority can still meet the EC targets well in time.

The Election Commission is using the services of 144 registration officers, 2,237 assistant registration officers, 28,992 supervisors and 86,740 enumerators, who have already received necessary training to launch an error-free campaign for electoral rolls. Most of these individuals belong to the education sector. Besides this massive team, the EC will appoint 500 judges from local courts to take up complaints from the public or political parties. Each district will have one assistant election commissioner.

When questioned about sharing the NADRA database and saving valuable time, not to mention one billion rupees in duplicating the same exercise, the CEC said, “The commission is bound to prepare fresh lists ahead of every general election, so we are doing our duty, but we will benefit from the NADRA database for verification purposes.”

According to the CEC, steps for the new electoral rolls were taken due to changes in population, including the emigration of people from rural areas to cities, and youth reaching voting age.

In the first phase, lists of families will be prepared and door-to-door distribution of forms will begin from July 29, while September 11 is the deadline for enumerators to complete the collection of the distributed forms. The supervisors would complete checking of the filled-up forms by September 26. The assistant registration officers and other teams would complete their task by October 6 and the validated forms will be sent to data centres for eventual computerisation, which will be completed by January 4.

The first draft of the electoral rolls would be printed on January 20, while complaints and objections would be dealt with by February 12. The review officers would give their verdicts on these applications by February 27, 2007. After inserting corrections in the first draft of the rolls by March 20, the final rolls will be printed by May 30.

Many believe that the stage is being set for another massive rigged election in 2007, unless the decision to base the electoral rolls on old NICs is scrapped and the NADRA database is used instead. The money allocated for preparing the new list could be diverted to NADRA to improve efficiency and provide greater outreach for its staff and equipment in far-flung districts. More importantly, the May 30 deadline remains too elusive to believe given the logistical, security and technical hitches, not too mention poor past track records of government departments fulfilling assigned tasks on time.