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Tuesday June 25, 2024

FAFEN observes low turnout, transparency concerns in by-polls

By Asim Yasin
April 24, 2024
The ballot casting process is underway at a polling station during the by-election in NA-119 and PP-147 constituencies, in Lahore on Sunday, April 21, 2024. — PPI
The ballot casting process is underway at a polling station during the by-election in NA-119 and PP-147 constituencies, in Lahore on Sunday, April 21, 2024. — PPI

ISLAMABAD: The Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN) in its report on the byelections has observed low voter turnout, procedural irregularities, and restrictions on independent observation in two provincial constituencies in Punjab.

These issues overshadowed the improved results management and lower numbers of ballots excluded from the count during the April 21 elections in 22 national and provincial assembly constituencies.

According to the FAFEN report on the 2024 byelections issued Tuesday, polling station establishment, voter identification, and counting at polling stations were observed to have been largely compliant with the law and procedures. However, instances of omissions in ballot issuance requirements by assistant presiding officers (APOs) were reported from around 14 percent of the observed polling stations.

While polling agents and accredited observers generally had access to the voting and counting process, security officials or presiding officers barred FAFEN observers from observing the election process at 19 polling stations in PP-36 Wazirabad and PP-22 Chakwal-cum-Talagang.

In PP-22, the accreditation process for FAFEN observers was also delayed until midday on the polling day, causing last-minute changes to the observation scope.

Nearly 36 percent of registered voters cast their votes on polling day, which is nine percent less than the turnout in 18 of these constituencies on February 8, 2024. Votes polled by women decreased by 12 percent, while votes polled by men declined by nine percent, despite an increase of 75,640 registered voters, including 37,684 men and 37,956 women compared to the general elections.

According to the report, Lahore’s five constituencies recorded the sharpest decline in voter turnout, with PP-147 reporting a mere 14 percent turnout as against 35 percent on February 8. Similarly, NA-119 Lahore registered a 19 percent turnout against 39 percent on February 8.

However, the voter turnout in Gujrat and Khuzdar constituencies recorded an increase compared to the general elections.

The declining turnout was accompanied by a reduction in the number of ballots excluded from the count during the by-elections, almost halved (35,574) as compared to the number of invalid ballots (72,472) during the general elections. In addition, there were no constituencies where the rejected ballots exceeded the margin of victory, as against four in the general election.

The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) issued provisional results for all the constituencies by the legal deadline of 10am on the following day of the polls, despite the suspension of cellular data services in the constituencies in Balochistan, Punjab, and Sindh. However, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa constituencies did not report any such disruption.

The parties that won during the general elections retained their seats in the byelections, except in PP-36 Wazirabad and PP-93 Bhakkar. In these constituencies, a PTI-backed candidate and an independent candidate had won during the general elections, but the PMLN candidates emerged successful in the byelections. These two were among the four constituencies where the margin of victory has decreased as compared to the general elections, unlike the rest, where the margin of victory has increased.

The byelections were necessitated due to the deaths of candidates in four constituencies and the vacation of seats by winning candidates in PB-50. Qilla Abdullah, however, went to the re-poll after a Supreme Court verdict. Of these, the ECP notified uncontested returned candidates in NA-207 Shaheed Benazirabad-I and PS-80 Dadu-I.

A PTI-backed independent candidate for NA-207 moved the Sindh High Court (SHC) to pray for the nullification of the uncontested elections, claiming that his nomination was wrongly rejected by the returning officer.

According to the lists of contesting candidates (Form 33), a total of 264 candidates, including 256 men and eight women, contested for the 22 constituencies. Of these 264, 88 candidates represented 21 political parties, while the remaining 176 contested independently.

The ECP had set up 4,238 polling stations—935 male, 899 female, and 2,404 combined—comprising 13,811 polling booths—6,778 male and 7,033 female—to cater to more than 6.3 million registered voters.

According to the FAFEN report, the decline in turnout, except for Gujrat and Khuzdar, was significant.

As per the provisional consolidated statement of the results of the count (Form-47), as many as 2,247,322 (36 percent) registered voters in 22 constituencies cast their ballots on April 21, showing a considerable decline as compared to the 50 percent turnout recorded in 18 of these constituencies where polling was held during general elections on February 8, 2024.

The male turnout dropped from 52 percent to 37 percent, and the female turnout dropped from 42 percent to 29 percent. The turnout drop occurred despite an increase of more than 75,640 registered voters in these constituencies, including 37,684 men and 37,956 women.

The highest surge in registered voters was recorded in NA-119 Lahore-III, where Form-28 issued for the byelection had 9,338 additional voters. On the other hand, PK-22 Bajaur-IV registered a decrease of one voter, while there was no new voter added to PP-290 Dera Ghazi Khan-IV and PB-50 Qilla Abdullah.

Comparing the turnout in these 18 constituencies shows a turnout drop in 15 constituencies and an increase in three constituencies. The constituencies recording a turnout increase included two Balochistan Assembly constituencies in Lasbela and Khuzdar and a Punjab Assembly constituency in Gujrat. The highest turnout was 80 percent, recorded in PB-50 Killa Abdullah. The lowest turnout was 14 percent, recorded in PP-147 Lahore-III.

As many as 11 constituencies had a turnout between 40 percent and 50 percent, six constituencies between 20 percent and 30 percent, three constituencies above 50 percent, and two constituencies below 20 percent.

Political polarisation, particularly in Punjab, led to polling day violence at isolated places in Lahore, Narowal, Rahim Yar Khan, and Sheikhupura, causing at least one death and multiple injuries.

The FAFEN observers reported six incidents of minor scuffles from as many polling stations among voters, political workers, and polling agents.

The presiding officers at one percent of the observed polling stations also reported such instances on the polling premises during interviews with FAFEN observers.

The FAFEN observers noted a crowded and unorganised atmosphere outside two percent of the polling stations, while a tense and fearful environment prevailed outside almost one percent of the polling stations. The prevalence of a crowded and unorganised environment inside the polling stations was slightly higher (three percent).

The FAFEN observed that the counting process was orderly, but transparency was lacking. The counting of the ballots took place in a generally conducive environment across all the polling stations where counting was observed. At 67 percent of the polling stations, the security staff was observed to be present at the counting place. The candidates, their election agents, or polling agents were present at 72 percent of the observed polling stations. However, the observers at nine percent of the polling stations were seated at a place where they could not closely observe the counting process.

The presiding officer did not provide a copy of the result of the count (Form-45) to the candidates or their agents at 18 percent of the polling stations and to the observers at 34 percent of the polling stations. Moreover, a copy of Form 45 was not put up outside the polling station building at 35 percent of the observed polling stations. Similarly, the presiding officers did not provide the ballot paper account (Form 46) to the candidates or their agents at 39 percent of the observed polling stations and to the observers at 50 percent of the polling stations. No Form-46 was put up outside 47 percent of the observed polling stations, and none of the polling agents that the FAFEN observers had talked to raised any objection to signing Form 45; rather, they expressed satisfaction with the counting process.

The FAFEN observed that restrictions on independent observation were present, as Section 238 of the Elections Act, 2017 permits duly accredited election observers to observe the proceedings, including the voting and counting processes.

The ECP provided accreditation cards to FAFEN observers on time in all constituencies except PP-22 Chakwal-cum-Talagang, where the election officials provided the accreditation cards at 11am on the polling day.

The security officials deployed at the polling stations barred FAFEN observers from entering the polling premises for observation of voting and counting processes at 21 polling stations, despite presenting the ECP’s accreditation cards. More than half of these polling stations (12) were in PP-22 Chakwal-cum-Talagang and seven in PP-36 Wazirabad.