Tuesday September 28, 2021

No mechanism to prevent pre-poll rigging

While the chances of rigging on the polling day have been minimised with the passage of the Election Act 2017 by Parliament, no mechanism has yet been evolved to prevent the pre-poll rigging. The Election Act, 2017 has made the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) quite a powerful body, provided it uses its powers in letter and spirit. The Act has also defined the role of returning officers (ROs) very clearly, who have always faced serious allegations of manipulation of the results. But now, they can face strict punishment including conviction, if any complaint against any RO is proven.

All appeals against the decisions of the election tribunals would now be disposed of in 120 days by two sitting judges of the high courts. In the past, it took years to dispose of the appeals, and sometimes decisions on such appeals remained undecided even till the next elections.

According to an official of the ECP, there are various methods of rigging elections on the polling day, like unusual delay in announcement of the results from certain constituencies without any reason, changes in Form 14 during the transportation of ballot boxes and transfer of results from presiding officers to the returning officers.

"The Election Act, 2017 has addressed most of the issues in detail, and the Electoral Reforms Committee of the Parliament had done a lot of work in making elections transparent," he said.

The committee did face heavy criticism over the clauses which relate to qualification and disqualification of the candidates, but that too had been addressed after the clauses were challenged in the high court.

However, we are still clueless when it comes to pre-poll rigging or political engineering and in defining the level playing field.

It will be quite a challenge for the future Parliament to address the issue more seriously, as it is linked to the external interference, something about which the ECP cannot do much. For instance, an amendment could be introduced to prevent any member changing his party, at least one year before the general election.

All elections from 1985 to 2013 were said to be managed, as there had not been many on-record cases of rigging on the polling day in those elections. Even in the worst elections of 1977, complaints of rigging were made about 20-25 seats. Yes, there had been cases of irregularities, committed during the elections due to lack of training of the presiding officers or returning officers.

Apparently, elections in Pakistan were mostly managed in the past as well, as once revealed by none other than the former ISI chief, the late Lt-Gen Hameed Gul, in an interview with the reporter about how the 1988 polls were managed “in the national interest”.

“Yes, it was not rigged but managed by putting all anti-PPP forces on one platform of Islami Jamoohri Ittehad (IJI) in order to get positive results,” he said.

The PPP was happy over winning the polls, and we were satisfied that she did not get two-thirds majority," he added.

"There was no rigging on the polling day, which could be checked, and only pre-poll adjustments were made and I admit I had formed the IJI," he said.

Managing elections through political engineering is very much linked to pre-poll rigging. If one goes through the circumstances, which led to the rise of one-party and fall of the other between 1985 to 2008, it would not be difficult to reach the conclusion as to how elections were managed. Just go through the results of 1988, 1990, 1993, 1997 and 2002, and you would find the mysterious rise and fall of the PPP and the PML-N.

“'King's party” is an old term in Pakistani politics, but for the first time the man who had formed the IJI, publicly confessed. Interestingly, formation of the PML, led by Mohammad Khan Junejo after non-party based elections, had also been branded as the, ‘king's party’ in 1985.

In 1988, after the government of Mohammad Khan Junejo was removed, and it was Mian Nawaz Sharif, who revolted against him and sided with the establishment of General Ziaul Haq, which resulted in the birth of PML-Nawaz.

In 2002, a group revolted against Nawaz and formed the PML-Q, led by Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, again with the backing of the then establishment, this time led by General (retd) Pervez Musharraf.

Similarly, attempts were also made to manage the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) after hanging of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto: firstly by creating a group, led by the late Hafeez Pirzada and Mumtaz Bhutto in the name of confederation, and secondly, another split was created and the late Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi formed National People’s Party (NPP). The last such attempt was made in 2002, when Musharraf created a splinter group called PPP-Patriot.

In the recent past, the PML-N was suddenly wiped out from Balochistan through a revolt and formation of a new party, Balochistan Awami Party (BAP), followed by formation of a new group of former PML-N electables in southern Punjab.

Like in the case of IJI, the decision of the Supreme Court in 2012 declared the 1990 elections as rigged, and manipulated as money was distributed and a former ISI chief Lt-Gen (retd) Asad Durrani had even named people whom the money was given.

Former secretary Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) Kanwar Dilshad, who had witnessed how elections were rigged or managed, made some interesting revelations.

When the scribe put this question to him as to how the elections are rigged in Pakistan, he said: “They were rigged mainly through ROs”, but added that things had improved since 2008 elections and now chances of rigging on the polling day have been minimised to a large extent.

"Many of us called 2013 elections as rigged, but if you check the record, you would find that except for 15 to 20 seats, there had not been evidence of rigging. Even in these constituencies, questions were raised about the role of ROs," he added.

Sharing his experience of the two referendums, conducted by the late General Ziaul Haq and General (retd) Pervez Musharraf, he said they were managed as hardly 10 per cent votes were cast, but when the results were announced, they secured over 90 per cent vote.

"In Musharraf's referendum, the whole Pakistan was converted into polling stations, whether it was a railway station, an airport, or a roadside. He wanted maximum people to vote for him," he said.

After going through the past elections, one finds that many of us considered 1977 elections as the most rigged, but details revealed that even in those elections, complaints of rigging revolved around 20 to 25 seats and also the manner in which the prime minister and chief ministers got themselves elected unopposed with the use of mussel power.

"In 2008, as the ECP secretary, I proposed transparent ballot boxes, so that polling agents of different candidates and parties do not have any complaints. I believe the ECP has never been as powerful as it is today, and if all goes well, we may not have many complaints in Election 2018," he hoped.

The writer is a senior columnist and analyst of Geo, The News and Jang.

Twitter: @MazharAbbasGEO