ECP needs to take electoral complaints more seriously
It’s been almost two weeks since Pakistan’s general election, yet complaints about irregularities and requests for recounts have yet to be satisfactorily resolved.
The most glaring category of complaint concerns counting results where the announced winner won by just a few hundred votes but the number of cancelled or rejected votes ran into thousands. This was, for example, the case in NA-114 (Jhang 1) where, according to the initial results, PPP’s Faisal Saleh Hayat was defeated by PTI’s Sahibzada M. Mehboob Sultan by just 589 votes. The number of rejected votes was almost 13,000.
Similarly, in NA-230 (Badin) the candidate of the anti-PPP alliance, Grand Democratic Alliance, Dr Fehmida Mirza was said to have won by 600 votes, again along with this slender margin the number of rejected votes was huge: over 10,000.
These sorts of results came from a number of constituencies, after incomprehensible delays in counting and complaints from many candidates -- none of them PTI -- that their polling agents had been locked out of polling stations while army personnel remained inside with the election commission staff.
And what has been interesting here has been both the response by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to the complaints as well as the anger this has generated in parts of the country.
In Faisal Saleh Hayat’s constituency the returning officer (RO) entertained his recounting request but then after an initial recount of some 10 polling stations he, rather mysteriously, declined to open or count the votes of any more polling stations. This went against not just the RO’s own initial ruling but also against logic of electoral law.
In Dr Fehmida Mirza’s case, as the recount began to show a decrease in her winning votes, it was stopped and referred up the bureaucracy ladder, and she decided to take the aggressive stance that it was actually she who had been the victim of rigging…
Various other recounts showed the PTI candidates lead diminish and disappear, and the opposing candidates emerge victorious. And it is interesting to note that the number of rejected votes is very high in constituencies where senior political leaders were contesting: Asfandyar Wali almost 8,000 cancelled votes, Aftab Sherpao close to 7,000 cancelled votes, Yusuf Raza Gilani over 5,600 cancelled votes and so on.
The response by ECP to complaints has been largely disappointing. On the election night, the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) told reporters everything had gone well and that if there were complaints they should be "brought to him". This was despite the fact that from all parts of the country candidates were complaining (the electronic media censored this news, social media reported it) that not only had their polling agents been evicted, they were also later not issued the relevant form which contained details of the count.
These were extremely serious allegations, the polls had closed at 6pm, but some results only came in two or more days later. The counting was not transparent and did not follow electoral rules. According to some reports, the army’s security staff was even directing voters towards "stamping the bat", the PTI’s election symbol.
ANP leader Asfandyar Wali’s presser, censored of course by the ‘breaking news’ tv channels, revealed details not just of threats against those who questioned army personnel that were evicting them from premises where votes were to be counted but also examples of incomprehensible counting -- like one polling station where the total number of votes polled was 211, yet, mysteriously, the PTI candidate received 306 votes.
ECP’s duty is not just event management; it is scrutiny as well. Yet they are failing in this. The whole scrutiny and recount exercise becomes increasingly difficult with the passage of time: not just does tampering with ballots become more of a possibility, but staff is open to increased pressures and threats.
There is little doubt that a great number of voters in this election were fed up with the old political order and voted for Imran Khan as a symbol of change, but at the same time there is a great deal of doubt about the veracity of many results. Most glaring of all these cases are those where the winning margin is slight but the number of rejected votes runs into tens of thousands…
Surely the curious case of these cancelled ballots is something that needs to be examined forensically? Of course, since it is now almost two weeks after the actual polling, the likelihood of tampering has increased exponentially. Perhaps restricting troops to the borders of polling stations, rather than the interior, might be something to consider.