Daska and beyond

February 28, 2021

The Daska incidents have raised questions about the Election Commission’s ability to hold free and fair elections

Daska looked like a war zone on the polling day. “It was like a scene from an Indian movie. Bullets were being shot in random directions on the streets and there was no one to stop it. It had never been like this here, ever,” Abid Mehdi, a local journalist, told The News on Sunday. Mehdi works for a national newspaper.

Eyewitness accounts of by election in Daska, NA-75, are alarming. Two polling agents lost their lives. They were identified as Pakistan Tehreej-i-Insaf’s Majid and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s Zeeshan. The deaths were reported from a polling station set up at Government Boys High School Goindkey-Bombaanwala. Two other PML-N supporters, Sajid and Fahad, were seriously injured.

Mehdi told TNS that the police had registered cases against unidentified people and claimed to have arrested a suspect.

Mudassir Rizvi of the Free and Fair Elections Network (FAFEN) said that FAFEN election observers were present at seven out of the 20 polling stations where violence was reported. At some other polling stations, he said, the polling remained peaceful till the counting of votes.

According to Rizvi, it had been a very close contest between the PML-N and the PTI at these polling stations in the last election.

“Election violence has been receding. In the 2002 elections, 75 people were killed in election-related violence. In 2008 elections, the number rose but the nature of violence was different due to the engagement of non-state actors,” Rizvi said.

The 2013 elections saw a further rise in violence by non-state actors, and 170 people died. In relative terms, the 2018 election was quite peaceful.

Amir Rana of the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies (PIPS) identifies three causes of violence during elections – 1) close competition, 2) clan or tribal rivalry, and 3) party-driven violence.

“In NA-75, the trigger was close competition. The parties were neck and neck in this constituency. This sparked violence,” said Rana. The only solution to this problem, he said, was the maintenance of the rule of law. Rana said the ECP had enough powers to rein in all institutions to ensure fair elections. It should use its powers effectively, he said.

Sabookh Syed, the editor of a digital news network, said, “social media determines the line. The mainstream media toes it… The mainstream media cannot avoid social media influencers who have millions of followers… When people like Maryam Nawaz or Imran Khan release footage of violence, TV channels also air it. Violence then begets violence.“

For the first time a by-election has been declared void. The decision came after twenty presiding officers in the constituency went missing for several hours. Top district administration officials were unavailable to answer the Commission’s queries.

In a press release after the by-election, the ECP mentioned that several senior government officers, including the commissioner, did not respond to the ECP calls on the polling day.

In a hearing on February 24, the returning officer recommended fresh polling at 14 polling stations. Polling staff at these stations had put up identical excuses for disappearing after the polling was concluded. Most of them said they got late due to fog and could not charge their mobile phones to dispatch the results electronically.

The ECP was told that the results at some of the polling stations were identical. While the PML-N sought fresh polling, several PTI ministers claimed victory and asked the ECP to notify it.

The NA-75 seat fell vacant when Syed Iftikharul Hassan Shah died of protracted illness. His daughter Nausheen Iftikhar is now running on a PML-N ticket. Her rival candidate Ali Asjad Malhi is an industrialist. In the last elections, Shah had defeated Malhi with a comfortable margin.

Mehdi says the election was a challenging after the Punjab chief minister met MPAs from the neighbouring constituencies before the elections and assured them any problems identified by them would be resolved by the government. He said Malhi had also won over some influential people in the area, who had announced joining the PTI.

Both Malhi and Iftikhar have appeared on TV talk shows and claimed victory. Both have accused each other of instigating violence.

Rizvi said besides ordering fresh polling, the ECP could order or recommend action against the officials found negligent.

On February 25, the ECP declared the polling void and ordered a re-poll on March 18.

It is for the first time that a by-election in Pakistan has been declared void after a number of presiding officers in the constituency went missing for several hours.

“It is the most appropriate decision. It shows that the Commission is willing to assert itself,” Rizvi told TNS.

The writer studies and teaches media. He can be reached on Twitter at @furraat

By-election: Daska and beyond