Sarwar Bari, Chairperson, INSPIRING Pakistan, Express Tribune, November 12, 2015
“What difference will my vote make?” said an old man sitting outside a polling station in the Jallo area of Lahore on October 31. “But did you vote?” I asked him. “No,” he replied firmly.
I tried to motivate him to do so explaining that he was only a few yards away from a polling station, and that with a little effort, he could influence the result. He angrily said, “None of the candidates ever spent a single paisa, now they are showering money on us. This is enough to doubt their intentions.” I surrendered, thanked him and walked away. He was right. Our electoral system enables the rich to capture democratic space and to hide their wrongdoings. The wise old man understood this very well. Hence, he was adamant not to vote. He is not alone. On October 31, more than 50 per cent of registered voters did not turn up to vote in the local government elections.
The Election Commission of Pakistan’s (ECP) code of conduct bars candidates from transporting voters to and from polling stations. But what I saw were all kinds of vehicles decorated with banners of candidates and their election symbols, violating this rule blatantly. I talked to many of the drivers of these vehicles and they revealed that they were hired by the candidates. I asked some voters if they had come to vote without this facility. Almost everyone said no. A woman explained that a lot more than just the ride had been provided and promised. Imagine the turnout without such rides and other lubricants. Should election authorities take action against this violation or thank the generosity of the candidates that made the turnout ‘impressive’? Interestingly, in other countries a less than 50 per cent turnout is considered poor; in our country it is celebrated. In the recently held elections in Turkey and Bihar, India, the turnout was 87 per cent and 60 per cent respectively.
Before I share my experience as an observer of the LG polls, I would like to briefly narrate the ordeal that the Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN) faced in order to get accreditation from the ECP. FAFEN wrote to the ECP for the issuance of accreditation. The ECP’s initial response, sent on October 21, set out preconditions to accreditation. FAFEN received the reply on October 22. With offices closed for the next three days on account of Ashura, FAFEN was left with just five days to respond to the ECP. However, after coming under pressure from all mainstream political parties, including the PML-N, the ECP allowed FAFEN to observe the electoral process. But it refused to issue the letter without getting a written undertaking from FAFEN to guarantee the security of its observers. The accreditation letter was finally issued late on the afternoon of October 30. The ugly ordeal didn’t end there. Now it was the turn of FAFEN’s district coordinators to suffer. The DRO Faisalabad flatly refused to honour the ECP letter. When pressure was mounted on him, he agreed to issue a few accreditation cards, whereas FAFEN had requested 213. FAFEN was partially barred from observing the whole process.
Election observation has always been an enriching experience. The arrogant elite suddenly start begging those whom they hate to talk to in normal times. No one bothered to check my card at the entry point or inside the polling rooms, but many other observers reported that they were not allowed to enter or observe the ballot counting despite possessing their cards. Will the ECP take action against those officials who dishonoured its own accreditation cards? I doubt it.
The socio-political context greatly helps understand the psychology of officials. It is a fact that our politics is patronage-based. A party that controls (not governs) the centre and provinces at the same time has a huge advantage over its opponents and it would never hesitate to (mis)use power for its narrow interests. Government officials would always be willing partners in such endeavours. Ruling parties seem to adopt a four-pronged approach towards election manipulation: gerrymandering; kick-starting mega projects; petty repairs at the local level; and interference in polling and result-preparation. A comprehensive observation must cover all the aspects. The ECP code and election laws are prepared in order to prevent the above-mentioned corrupt practices.
In violation of the ECP code, all candidates had set up camps within 200 yards of the polling stations to facilitate voters. Camp managers are the best source of information on the standard of polling. Their main complaint was regarding electoral rolls. Most said that voters of the same gharana numbers were divided across wards, union councils and cities, and voters of other districts, unions and wards transferred to their areas.
Although policemen were present in most polling booths, many polling agents were absent, while those who were present were found sitting outside the booths. On my enquiry, a presiding officer said that there was no space for extra people inside the booth. Two-third of the room was visibly empty. When I pointed this out, he had no answer but to rush out and bring the polling agents inside. For polling staff, it is imperative to read out the name and serial number of each voter loudly so that polling agents can check the details of that person and cross his/her name on the roll. By kicking polling agents out of the room, an extremely vital mechanism of transparency was eliminated. The polling staff could stuff ballot boxes, issue many ballot papers to one voter and so on.
In another polling station, when I asked the presiding officer about the presence of policeman inside the booth, his reply was, “I can’t tell a policeman to leave.” I told him that he had the powers of a First Class Magistrate, and he meekly said, “Only for a day, afterwards I would be at his mercy.”
In a few polling areas, the secrecy screens, ballot boxes and polling staff were found in two separate rooms — a very serious violation. On my enquiry, the polling agents said they were forced to sit outside and that no one provided them with any training. This was not unusual. In all elections, I have found most polling agents to be docile, careless and untrained. If parties invested 10 per cent of their total cost of electioneering on selecting assertive, educated and trained polling agents, polling and counting violations could be minimised, if not completely eliminated.
The ECP knows very well that observer groups fully understand electoral laws and have the capacity to deploy trained people, and hence can easily point out corrupt practices and irregularities. Election officials may find it simple to reject complaints of losing candidates, but can’t ignore findings of an independent and neutral observer group like FAFEN. Therefore, the ECP always tries to bar domestic observers from comprehensive monitoring. It is imperative, therefore, to evolve an alternative monitoring method that does not involve ECP accreditations. Only robust and independent observation will help improve the credibility of elections and governance. And build the confidence of wise old men in the process.
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