A frivolous case

Published July 26, 2015
The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

THE commission tried to be charitable. It threw in the bit at the end that the “PTI was not entirely unjustified in requesting the establishment” of the commission. It referred to the “suspicion of a sinister design”.

But we don’t have to be charitable. In the end, the PTI case of mass fraud and manipulation hung on two claims. Both those claims the commission took on in detail. Both were demolished in their entirety. Both — in the end — were nothing more than political smokescreens.

The first one, from the commission report: “562. The PTI has alleged that the Provincial Election Commission Punjab had employed 200 extra persons, picked up from the Urdu Bazar Lahore, just 48 hours before the polling and surreptitiously printed ballot papers to be delivered to unknown constituencies.”

Election officials are not the ISI. There’s little that can be kept secret at the constituency level.

That was the core of the PTI’s case and it went something like this: the ECP colluded with the senior Punjab bureaucracy handling election-related matters and with the caretaker chief minister to print bogus ballots in an unauthorised location and then had them delivered to specific constituencies where the PML-N trounced the PTI.

But it was fairly obvious what had happened, and the commission quickly unearthed it — astonishingly, from the very evidence given by the very witnesses that the PTI itself called to prove its claims.Basically, a lazy ECP realised late in the game that it had screwed up oversight of the printing of the ballot papers.

The Printing Corporation of Pakistan was supposed to print all ballots, but didn’t have the capacity when the final numbers were given to them by the ECP — so the Printing Corporation roped in the Pakistan Postal Foundation to help print roughly 20 million ballots for Punjab.

Amazingly, the numbering and binding of ballot books is done by hand — manually. Nearly two hundred million ballots. Numbered and bound by hand. In the 21st century. Welcome to Pakistan.

Of course, if the Printing Corporation doesn’t have an automated process, neither does the Postal Foundation — so the Postal Foundation handed several million unnumbered ballots to the Printing Corporation and left the Printing Corporation to deal with the headache. On the eve of the election.

A desperate and frantic Printing Corporation then had to hire more people at the last minute to number and bind the loose ballots supplied by the Postal Foundation — and for this the Printing Corporation initiated a pretty standard chain of actions: it contacted the ECP, which had its provincial appointee contact the Punjab administration and so were located the necessary workers.

Thirty-four experienced and qualified individuals — similar to the 80 already hired from all over the country to number and bind the ballots — were hurriedly found and sent from Lahore to Islamabad to get the job done.

It was, yes, an ad hoc arrangement that should never have been needed if the ECP had been more competent and alert — but it wasn’t surreptitious, and it involved many agencies coordinating transparently among, literally, hundreds of people and under the same multi-layered supervision and security applicable to the rest of the ballots.

The second allegation: “567. PTI had pointed out that in many constituencies ballot-papers in excess of total number of registered voters had been delivered, raising serious doubts that the same was done for ulterior motive and so as to facilitate rigging and manipulation.”

Basically, the PTI’s claim was that the ECP Action Plan for Printing of Ballot-Papers for General Election 2013 required the Provincial Election Commissioners, who report to the ECP, to determine the ballot count for each constituency based on the total required at each polling station rounded off to the next hundred.

The big gotcha moment for the PTI was that in Punjab, the Provincial Election Commissioner left it to the Returning Officers in each constituency to determine the number of ballots requested — the Punjab ROs, who were lower court judges, being in the pocket of the PML-N via then-CJ Iftikhar Chaudhry, according to the PTI.

So the commission again did the obvious — it looked at how the excess ballot requests were made. It was essentially a mess. The ECP didn’t really care about its own Action Plan, the PEC wasn’t interested either and the ROs came up with their own formulas — formulas that were based on arithmetic and that had nothing to do with who the candidates were in the constituency.

Instead of polling station-level calculations, polling booth-level calculations were made (a polling station usually has two or three booths). On top of that, additional margins were added by some ROs. That bloated and left uneven the excess-ballot count across some Punjab constituencies.

But — and this was really the crux of the allegation — the commission found no pattern to the excess ballot distribution; it found no evidence the excess ballots were systematically unaccounted for; and it found no evidence — direct or circumstantial — that the excess ballots were systematically used to benefit any party.

Basically, the commission found that the PTI had spun administrative anomalies into a vast conspiracy — but, at the most cursory of probing, the conspiracy collapsed into very ordinary explanations of a quintessentially Pakistani administrative cock-up.

Ah, but you’re thinking, that’s the state’s fault and the PTI only pointed out very real flaws and demanded they be investigated. Well, no. The PTI case was built on a sophisticated understanding of the election process — even your average candidate probably doesn’t know the intricacies of excess-ballot requests and printing arrangements.

You can’t possibly argue that you know the detail of printing arrangements, but not the reasons for them, especially when no one made any attempt at all to hide the explanations all along.You also can’t possibly argue that you know the details of excess-ballot requests, but not that they revealed no pattern that disadvantaged your party or helped the PML-N. Election officials are not the ISI. There’s little that can be kept secret at the constituency level.

The commission didn’t — couldn’t — say it, but the PTI case was frivolous. It was, though, a frivolity based on Imran Khan’s deadly serious quest to knock out the government and become prime minister.

But we knew that already. Onwards, to the next PTI gimmick.

The writer is a member of staff.


Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, July 26th, 2015

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