UNTIL recently, observers of the electoral process here agreed that Pakistan was heading towards one of the most well-organised, free and fair general elections in its history. The optimism regarding the elections scheduled for this year was not unfounded.

The Election Commission of Pakistan had worked hard on addressing most deficiencies pointed out by the judicial commission of inquiry on the 2013 election. Training of ECP staff and master trainers had started some two years before the anticipated election date, unlike in the past when such half-hearted sessions would commence only weeks before the election.

Pakistan can now boast of one of the most accurate and complete electoral rolls in its history, with the voter’s picture and CNIC number included in the list. An early campaign was also launched for including missing women voters in the voters’ list.

A consolidated Elections Act, 2017, was passed by parliament last year, which, despite some deficiencies, may be regarded as a more comprehensive, progressive law. Special pro-women provisions have been added to void the election where women voter turnout is less than 10 per cent of the total votes cast. Political parties have to award at least 5pc tickets to women candidates on general seats.

Given our past poll history, will Pakistan be able to prevent interference in the next general election?

Delimitation of constituencies, despite some initial apprehensions, seems to be making satisfactory progress. Apparently, the ECP is on track to complete the adjudication of 1,285 representations received on preliminary proposals within the allotted time of 30 days by May 3.

According to the Constitution, neutral caretaker governments are required to be in place at the centre and in the provinces within three days after the assemblies complete their terms. In case the outgoing leaders of the house and opposition do not agree on the caretaker chief executives, a parliamentary committee consisting of an equal number of treasury and opposition legislators will decide the matter in the next three days. If even this is not possible, the ECP will pick the caretaker chief executive in the next two days. It is, therefore, anticipated that the caretaker governments will be in place within eight to 10 days of the dissolution of the assemblies and no deadlock is anticipated because of the clear constitutional provisions.

A review of these key arrangements indicates that the prospects of holding free, fair and credible election in July or August this year are quite bright. But it is not the technical, legal or logistic arrangements alone which can guarantee a free, fair and credible election. Elections are essentially a political activity and politics hugely impacts the quality of the election. Terms like prepoll, polling day and post-poll rigging have been a part of our electoral vocabulary since the first election in Pakistan. These terms have gained greater currency since the first general election based on adult franchise in 1970. Although the first election is now regarded as one of the most relatively free and fair, the military government of the time was repeatedly accused by the PPP and its leaders for what they perceived as the pro-rightist tilt of the regime.

The second election in 1977 is generally discredited because of the blatant prepoll and polling day rigging that involved the kidnapping of candidates running against the sitting prime minister and chief ministers of the time and the stuffing of ballot boxes. The result of the election was generally rejected by the public and a nationwide street agitation ensued leading to martial law and the tragic hanging of the first popularly elected prime minister.

The general election of 1988 is significant in the sense that the DG ISI of the time, late Lt Gen Hameed Gul, later publicly admitted to the active role of the ISI in forming and supporting a coalition of parties named the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) against the PPP — all in the name of the ‘greater national interest’. The 1990 general election was even more significant in the context of organised rigging by state institutions specifically the ISI. A sum of Rs140 million was reportedly procured from a bank and distributed among many politicians. The details are documented in the affidavit submitted by Gen Asad Durrani, DG ISI at the time.

The Supreme Court later adjudicated on this brazen state-sponsored rigging in what came to be known as the Asghar Khan case and asked the state to proceed against the army chief and DG ISI of the time and many others for interfering in the electoral process and funding certain political parties and individuals.

The 2002 election is known to be rigged both in the pre- and post-election phases. Intelligence agencies were reportedly used to screen out ‘undesirable’ candidates and NAB was employed to make elected PPP legislators switch sides to support the PML-Q for prime ministership.

The 2008 election was relatively free from interference from a central authority but Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, former prime minister and president of PML-Q, has implied in his recently published autobiography that the election was rigged against his party under the watch of then president Gen Pervez Musharraf. There is no evidence of organised rigging in the 2013 election, as established by a judicial commission of inquiry.

With this historical baggage of using state institutions for manipulating elections, the allegations of the PML-N and its allies that they were being victimised by state institutions cannot be summarily dismissed. There seems to be an emerging worrisome pattern of efforts to influence the coming general election for achieving a particular target. Nobody knew for sure at the time that blatant rigging was taking place in 1988 and 1990, and that state institutions and senior state functionaries were employed to undertake such dishonourable acts as supporting some and harming other political parties. There is a need to be vigilant to make sure that no one is allowed to steal the 2018 general election despite all the hard and fine work done by a number of institutions to prepare for a free, fair and credible election.

The writer is the president of Pildat.

president@pildat.org

Twitter: @ABMPildat

Published in Dawn, April 30th, 2018