The local and foreign observers have commented carefully but there’s a lot to read between the lines
The recent general elections in Pakistan were followed by people from all over the world. A reasonable number of international observers came here to monitor the way they were conducted and whether transparency was observed during the process, or not.
Besides, there were observers comprising representatives of civil society in the country and the media -- both foreign and local. As per the figures released by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), around 53,000 international, national, local and media observers were awarded permission by the commission to monitor these elections and come up with their findings.
The findings shared by the observers have a crucial role in determining if the elections are free and fair. Therefore, all eyes were set on the observers. The election management authorities, political parties, the international community, the voters and others were waiting anxiously to hear what they had to say.
For example, the declaration by the EU Election Observation Mission (EOM) that 2018 elections were conducted in a better way than the 2013 elections gave reason to the parties that have performed well to counter allegations of foul play. The same commission pointed out certain violations and denial of level playing field to all contestants, presence of security personnel near polling booths, expulsion of polling agents at the time of counting and suspicious delay in result announcement. Similarly, local organisation like the Free And Fair Election Network (FAFEN), Pakistan have given a mixed response to the quality and transparency of elections but in a very cautious manner.
Soon after the elections, the international observer missions and local organisations came up with their preliminary reports that were construed differently by different people and entities. Some quoted their statements to enforce their claim of the elections being transparent while others focused on the parts that highlighted major violations of elections and code of conduct.
Islamabad-based political analyst Zaigham Khan explains this point and says the international observers historically use diplomatic language that sometimes makes it difficult for people to draw a conclusion. The same, he says, is the case with local observers representing NGOs that have their unique jargon. "They use it tactfully in a way not to offend anyone but at the same time say what they want to."
Khan refers to the preliminary reports by EU EOM and FAFEN and says "If these are read in full one finds many sensitive issues mentioned with care. At points only irregularities are mentioned and it has been left to the imagination of the readers to find out the motives behind these."
Some key observations of the EU EOM report can be looked at for clarity on this issue. The report points out that the election day was orderly with a preliminary turnout of 52 per cent but there were irregularities in the vote counting and result transmission processes.
It raises concern about the involvement of security forces in counting processes, failure of the Result Transmission System (RTS) and the failure of the ECP to receive all results by the deadline of 2 am announced for this purpose.
The EU EOM has also claimed that unlike their previous missions to Pakistan, they faced unprecedented delay in the deployment of its observers. Furthermore, it complains "the last minute cancellation by the ECP of accreditation that had already been issued to the mission’s national staff meant that on election day the majority of teams observed voting and counting without the assistance of an interpreter."
Khan asserts that despite being aware of the sensitivities of diplomatic relations with Pakistan, the EU EOM’s observations at points are direct and blunt.
The report clearly mentions that though the nomination process was inclusive, wide-ranging and inconsistent interpretations of the nomination criteria were applied. Due to this several candidates were rejected in one constituency and accepted in other. The report adds: "Several candidates of the PML-N and PPP defected to other parties (mostly to PTI) or registered as independent candidates. 31 EU EOM interlocutors attributed the particularly high number of independent candidates as an attempt by the military establishment to weaken political parties."
Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, President PILDAT, states the purpose of having national and international election observers is to create deterrence. This deterrence, he says, "is supposed to infuse fear among different players having important role in holding elections that they are being watched". He says it is quite difficult to determine at the moment that the presence of observers has made any major difference. "I would simply say it’s better to have them here than not have them on ground at all."
Among the local observers, FAFEN was the most important as it deployed long-term observers in 130 districts and 19,683 short-term observers on election day, covering 80 per cent of polling stations. It came up with the finding that "in 35 NA constituencies the number of rejected votes was greater than the margin of victory. These were 24 constituencies in Punjab, six in KP, four in Sindh and one in Balochistan." The point was that there was a possibility of votes being intentionally spoiled and rejected to give benefit to one candidate over the other. To balance its stance, the network declared that the election day was better managed and the scale of procedural irregularities during the voting process was relatively low.
The accredited observers and media persons were allowed to enter a polling station for brief duration. Media persons were allowed along with camera for making footage of the voting process or counting process, however, they were not allowed to make the footage of the screened off compartment to maintain the secrecy of the ballot.
An observer working with FAFEN says the controversy over rejected votes calls for forensic audit. "This way it will become possible to find out whether a particular vote was tampered with after the lapse of a couple of hours or so and whether multiple stamps had been affixed by different people or not." He says it is quite likely that many votes were wrongly rejected because stuffing ballot boxes with bogus votes is no more possible because you have to get thumb impressions of voters on the counterfoils.
The situation of media observers was also quite unfavourable as they were finding it difficult to explain their case especially to the security personnel. Though the ECP accreditation allowed them to visit polling stations and observe the counting process, they were denied entry at many places and even asked to bring a letter issued by ISPR instead of the ECP card they were wearing.
Muhammad Mudassar, a journalist based in Lahore, believes this confusion was due to the lack of communication between the ECP and the security personnel deployed at the polling stations. "Many of them were not even familiar with the fact that journalists had been authorised to visit polling stations, observe activity at all places except where vote is stamped and take pictures/make footage," he adds.