The local government elections recently conducted in Sindh “took place in a tense, yet competitive and pluralistic environment, which benefitted from active media scrutiny and specific measures by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to address electoral issues”.
This and more such observations have been made by Democracy Reporting International (DRI), a non-partisan and independent Berlin-based organisation, in its report – ‘Sindh Local Government Elections Assessment’ – that was released on Thursday.
Highlighting some of the issues faced in the process, the report mentioned that “problems included incidents of violence, recurrent allegations of bias by some Returning Officers (ROs), administrative shortcomings, insufficient transparency and inadequate mechanisms for remedy”. The DRI report asserts that the legal framework for LG elections “remained weak, gave excessive discretion to the provincial government, was subject to late changes, and included omissions”, while “women and minorities continued to be under-represented in the electoral process”.
It states that “many aspects of the legal framework, institutional arrangements and implementation raise questions about Pakistan’s compliance with obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and other institutional legal instruments”.
The DRI expressed reservations over the legal framework of the Sindh Local Government Act 2013 (SLGA) and Sindh Local Government (Conduct of Elections) Rules 2015, on the grounds of “limited consultation with the ECP, opposition parties and other electoral stakeholders”, further adding that “the provincial government introduced very late changes to the SLGA, which altered basic aspects of the electoral system”. “The SLGA and broader legal framework for Sindh’s local government elections have notable gaps and weakness related to the electoral systems utilised, the equality of votes, voter registration, voter and candidate eligibility, freedom of association, result processes, election observation and non-discrimination,” it noted.
“The gaps in the SLGA also leave the provincial government, which is mandated with the authority to make electoral rules, with excessive discretion, which compromised stakeholders’ understanding of the legal framework and impaired implementation,” the report mentioned.
“A legal framework with gaps and a lack of transparency, in practice means that problems and conflict are more likely during the electoral process. Risks are compounded by weak mechanisms for dispute resolution, so addressing these and other issues is key to help improve future local and general elections in Pakistan,” said DRI’s Hannah Roberts, who led the election assessment missions in Sindh and Balochistan.
Structure and electoral system
The report said that the SLGA does not address the electoral system for indirect elections to reserved seats, which in fact represents 43 percent of all local council seats, an aspect which certainly does not conform to international good practices.
“Some provisions are also relegated to the Election Rules, leaving fundamental elements of the electoral system weakly protected from ruling party bias,” it read.
The DRI was explicit in stating that “the provincial government wielded excessive influences over the delimitation process, which was insufficiently countered by the ECP”.
“Delimitation proved a controversial part of the election process, and as the appeals tribunals were deemed inadequate, cases were consequently taken to superior courts. These cases resulted in judgements that required fresh delimitation in many constituencies and resulted in the delay of some elections”.
As per the DRI’s assessment, “the decision to draw most of the District Returning Officers (DROs) and ROs from the civil service resulted in accusation of partisan bias in election administration, as the continued reliance on these temporary officials to administer the elections – with limited checks from the ECP – insufficiently provided for clear accountability, with responsibilities instead diffused”.
Campaign in practice
The electoral campaigns, the report mentioned, were marked by multiple violent incidents. “A notable conflict occurred during the first phase of polling in Khairpur, wherein a confrontation between party workers from the PML-F and PPP resulted in 13 deaths,” it said.
In Sanghar district, reportedly, similar violence caused four more deaths and resulted in postponement of elections in two districts. “In a separate incident, a party leader was killed on the eve of the elections in Hyderabad,” the report added.
Abuse of state resources
The DRI report mentioned that “the ongoing Karachi Operation led by the paramilitary force was perceived by many stakeholders as effective, but it also repeatedly involved disappearances and detention of political workers and supporters”.
It further states that “the MQM claimed to be targeted through such actions. As the campaign focus shifted to Karachi, MQM intensified its public protest against what it claimed to be a campaign of intimidation, raids on offices, extrajudicial killing of at least 55 party workers in 2015 alone and the detention of another 4,000”.
The report added that opposition parties repeatedly alleged that the election administration demonstrated a partisan bias in favour of the provincial ruling party, which was also accused of abuse of public resources, especially through the police.
Election Day observations
Citing observations made by the Free and Fair Election Network (Fafen), the DRI report said the election monitoring organisation was more critical of the third phase of the local bodies’ poll, describing it as “by far the most chaotic and disorderly of all phases of the LG elections”.
According to Fafen, “57 percent of visited polling stations failed to ensure secrecy of vote, the presence of unauthorised armed individuals was witnessed in party camps near 25 percent of polling stations, and a high frequency of unauthorised government officials was also observed in polling stations (as high as 34 percent in Karachi Central)”.
“The post-election day environment was tense, with allegations of electoral malpractice, intimidation and bias by authorities. For example, the violence in Khairpur at the end of the first election day prompted a protest by PML-F and others in Karachi,” the DRI noted.
“In response to the killing of its leader, Dr Anwar Laghari, the Sindh United Party (SUP) went on a hunger strike. According to the SUP, the assassination was designed to discourage its supporters from voting. In Badin, the Mirza group, alleged harassment when one of its elected counselors was arrested soon after election day”.
“After the third phase, there were again allegations of rigging, the capture or occupation of polling stations, and violence, however no party rejected the overall results or the process. Issues instead arose relating to earlier stages of the process; for example, proposers and seconders for candidate nominations being kidnapped to prevent applications being filed.”
“On January 2, the ECP published turnout data by district; this showed 54pc turnout in the first phase, and 58pc for the second. There was however a marked drop for the third phase, which had a recorded turnout of 36pc, the lowest of which was in Karachi East, with 29pc”.
The report stated that “following the third phase, there was also dispute over the powers of the elected bodies, with voiced criticism regarding their limited mandates and competencies. In particular, the MQM submitted a bill in the Sindh Assembly on amendments to the SLGA to empower the Karachi Mayor to head the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board. On January 16, the Supreme Court called for the provincial governments to account for the competencies and functions of local councils.”
Speaking at the launch session, Hassan Nasir Mirbahar, DRI’s Team Leader in Pakistan, said, “Opportunities to file a petition were limited to delimitation, candidate nomination and the results processes. However, every citizen should have the right and opportunity to seek remedy for any aspect of elections.”
Since there were limited opportunities for timely remedy, cases were filed with higher courts. This was burdensome for the higher judiciary, and caused uncertainty as the courts deferred elections in several constituencies, he added.
“This meant that Pakistan fell short of meeting its international commitments, which require timely and effective resolution of complaints from anyone whose rights are violated,” he said.
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