The people of Pakistan came out in more or less the same numbers, and voted pretty much the way they always have. The parties and candidates too used the same old tricks to cheat their way through an electoral victory. The independent monitors and the powerful Election Commission of Pakistan, watched blatant rigging in high-stake constituencies and turned their face away as they always do. And the majority party in the National Assembly is the one that was predicted to win 2013 election even before it lost to PPP in 2008.
Upsets? None, unless you are too sympathetic to PML (Q) and ANP, both of which could hold on to only one NA seat each. And too concerned with the more than expected majority of PML (N).
Rest everything went according to the old script: There was practically no polling in the Baloch-dominated areas of Balochistan, and in significantly low numbers elsewhere in the province, paving way for the second consecutive provincial assembly made up of unrepresentative and criminal elements. Pakhtunkhwa voters lived up to their reputation for craving wholesale change – they voted in the religious right, then nationalist left, and now the ‘Naya Pakistan’ of Imran Khan. Punjab stuck with PML (N), rural Sindh with PPP and urban Sindh with MQM, as they have done time and again. Election 2013 was also the coming out of a new party, PTI, that was expected to make room in the parliament by dislodging some incumbents, which it did.
Nothing dramatic came out of the elections, except complaints of rigging galore by political opponents and of gross mismanagement on the part of ECP. Political leaders have alleged foul play in every province, but let’s just focus on more serious charges backed by research and evidence. The Human Rights Commission said in its preliminary report that the May 11 elections had been rated by a majority of its observers as ‘the most poorly managed affair’. The Free and Fair Election Network (Fafen) observed that the situation in Karachi was so worrisome that ‘it was not clear if the results reflected the free will of voters’. And the citizens filled the social media space with video evidence of rigging, particularly in Karachi, Hyderabad and Lahore, with clearly marked data on the place and timing of the incident. Some of these video clips were broadcasted by news TV channels and at least one of them showed rangers arresting and taking away men accused of stuffing bogus votes.
It was a bit of shock then to hear the chief election commissioner, and then the commission’s secretary, congratulate the nation on the ‘successful holding of transparent elections’ and pat themselves on the back for a job well done. This despite the fact that the chief had only a few hours ago, accepted the fact that the commission had ‘failed to ensure fairness in Karachi’ and had enough evidence of criminal activity and some idea of who the criminals were. Explaining the delay in polling for Karachi’s NA 250 constituency, the chief volunteered information that the staff at several polling stations had been kidnapped and so ECP had to first trace them and then get them released … So, they know who the kidnappers were.
The complaints of mass electoral fraud may be limited to a few constituencies and their polling stations, but it does put a question mark on the integrity of all the leaders we have just elected. It is a matter of utmost seriousness for all voters to be assured that their mandate hasn’t been stolen. What ECP has done so far, falls way short. If anything, the self-congratulatory messages coming from the commission are adding to the confusion and frustration of the voter. This election saw a lot of public awareness of rights and duties as citizens, and the vote was generally accepted as the only viable means for a genuine change. Whatever the final turnout figure, it was a healthy showing and included millions of first time voters. The passion they brought to the ballot box has within 48 hours turned into anger at being robbed by the vote keepers. NA 250 was only the flashpoint, now several areas in Karachi, interior Sindh and Lahore are seeing violent protests by disillusioned voters.
ECP’s dilemma is this: election rigging is being blamed on parties that have won heavily in their area of influence – MQM, PPP and PML (N) – which is not to say smaller parties are any cleaner. If the commission takes up one case, it’ll open a floodgate of complaints. There is plenty of evidence in the public sphere to prove mainstream political parties’ involvement in criminal vote rigging, and then what? A toothless commission that Justice (R) F.G. Ibrahim heads is finding itself incapable of investigating fraud, let alone punishing individuals, candidates, and party leaders proved guilty.
So, here is the potential watershed in the political history of Pakistan. The ECP can deal with this gathering storm by closing its eyes and hoping the worst would’ve been over when they open them. It has worked till last elections. Or it can interrogate witnesses and suspects, including government officials deputed at polling stations, with the objective to catch the sharks who planned, financed, executed and assisted electoral fraud, and then hand out punishments commensurate with the enormity of the crime – stealing the will of the people. That has never been done before.
A caretaker government and an independent election commission are neutral institutions and therefore best placed to prosecute poll fraudsters. Or they can put a few worker bees in jail, order a re-election and be done with it. This country’s voter stared terrorism in the face and went out to vote. They have discharged their responsibility remarkably well. It is now ECP’s turn to have a spine, to show courage. Whether or not ECP can do the right thing, will decide whether or not this country’s voters will show faith in electoral process, and indeed in democracy, for a long time to come.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.