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Analysis: Perceptions of election rigging

Updated July 08, 2018

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PTI supporters lodge their protest against rigging on Lahore seats in 2013 elections.—White Star
PTI supporters lodge their protest against rigging on Lahore seats in 2013 elections.—White Star

Saima Shaukat is a die-hard supporter of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), and was among the people who had gathered at Lalak Chowk in Defence Housing Authority, Lahore, to stage a sit-in against the alleged rigging in the 2013 election.

“Where is my vote?” was the common refrain at the time.

Saima had also joined the PTI’s sit-in in Islamabad in 2014 which had eventually forced the Nawaz Sharif-led government to form a judicial commission, led by Justice Nasirul Mulk (the incumbent caretaker prime minister), which had dismissed that the 2013 elections had been “systematically rigged”.

Saima, a post-graduate degree-holder in journalism, is excited about her party’s chances of forming a government after the July 25 elections. But this time around, she has no concerns about rigging.

“I do not see any room for rigging under the strict watch of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) and the Supreme Court. There will also be deployment of the army at polling stations in the presence of a vibrant media... the 2018 elections will largely be rigging-free, I believe as a voter,” Saima says.

Ironically, the issue of election rigging now appears forgotten by the PTI and it has instead become the prime concern of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PLM-N).

“If the 2013 elections were run by the returning officers, as the PTI and PPP claimed, then the 2018 polls are being run by ‘aliens’,” PML-N’s information secretary Senator Mushahidullah Khan says, referring to the role of the establishment.

“The rigging has already begun as my leaders — Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif — have been talking about every now and then. We are being denied a level-playing field… our candidates have been forced by ‘hidden hands’ to switch their loyalties (a reference to a video of PML-N candidate Rana Iqbal Siraj in Multan, who claimed he was tortured and threatened by intelligence personnel, only to eat his words), the National Accountability Bureau has been active in taking action against our party men only (a reference to the arrest of PML-N candidate Raja Qamarul Islam who is contesting against Chaudhry Nisar in Rawalpindi). The courts keep on disqualifying PML-N’s candidates. Almost every tactic is being applied to stop the PML-N from returning to power, which has no precedent in the past. This pre-poll rigging began since the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif (from the office of the prime minister) in July 2017, and the PTI is a beneficiary of this rigging,” says the PML-N senator.

Talking to Dawn about his party’s concerns regarding Election Day, the senator says: “The way we are being targeted ahead of elections shows that there may be something in store for us on polling day too. We saw during the by-poll in NA-120 (now NA-125), Lahore, in September last year that voters carrying PML-N slips were being denied entry to several polling stations to vote for Begum Kulsoom Nawaz. We are watchful in anticipation of rigging attempts on polling day.”

However, Mudassar Rizvi of the Free and Fair Election Network (Fafen) is of the view that rigging is more of a ‘political term’ and to prove it has never been easy task.

“There are either irregularities or illegalities in an election and if illegalities are committed deliberately it becomes rigging. In 2013, form 15 (now form 45, number of ballots) was allegedly missing in 35 per cent polling stations of the country that could not be proved eventually.”

He says it is always difficult to prove illegalities (rigging) in a court of law.

“A total 411 election petitions were filed in courts after 2013 polls and interestingly most of the complaints belonged to the PML-N, not the PTI.”

He says rigging is more or less a perception. “When a party leader like Imran Khan or Nawaz Sharif talks about rigging their voters believe this claim and develop this perception,” he says.

Mr Rizvi believes that some electoral reforms introduced in this election may minimise some concerns of political parties over rigging as some grey areas in the process seem to have been addressed.

They include measures like “making a returning officer (RO) a direct party in the court by an aggrieved candidate, the ECP is empowered to punish ROs, no transfer and posting without the knowledge of the ECP, electronic transmission of form 46 (election result of a polling station) and provision of its hard copy to the ECP within 48 hours”.

Ironically, the issue of election rigging now appears forgotten by the PTI and it has instead become the prime concern of the PML-N.

The ECP, too, is confident that a number of measures they have introduced have addressed the issue of candidates’ complainants with regard to irregularities and illegalities (rigging).

“This time we have imported fine ballot paper from the UK and France. Political parties will now have no complaint about its quality like they had in 2013 when they complained of its ink spread over the paper (ballot). We have introduced some security features of the ballot as well securing it completely from any kind of tampering,” ECP spokesperson Altaf Khan told Dawn.

The ECP is also using technology — result transmission system (RTM) — under which a presiding officer will take a snapshot of the result soon after its compilation and send it to the ECP and the RO concerned, he says.

“It will redress a common complaint that a presiding officer has taken away the result to his home.”

Besides, he says, reforms have been brought about in the result management system (RMS).

“Now only one RO has been tasked with maintaining the result of one constituency, lessening the burden on him for other adjoining constituencies, and that will help an error-free and timely compilation of the result of a constituency,” he says, adding that an RO has also been equipped with a laptop and a couple of data entry operators for consolidation of results.

The ECP official further says it has also separately set up a monitoring wing, while keeping an eye on violation of the election code of conduct.

In addition to this, the ECP has engaged international experts to train its staff for the upcoming elections.

“We will make sure that all political parties get a level-playing field in the elections,” Mr Khan says.

Like Saima, PTI’s senior leader Shafqat Mahmood has expressed satisfaction with the measures the ECP has taken to ensure transparent polls.

“By and large the ECP’s measures to ensure free and transparent polls are satisfactory as we see that this time intention (of ECP and caretaker government) is good.”

The PTI leader says even though the PML-N is claiming that the election has been rigged, in fact the PML-N is committing pre-poll rigging openly through its local body representatives (councillors, chairmen). Although the caretaker government has suspended the local body governments, PML-N’s councillors, vice-chairmen and chairmen are active in Punjab to facilitate their provincial and national assembly candidates, he claims.

A PML-N activist in Lahore says the 2013 elections were easy for the PML-N to win since the establishment was siding with them at that time.

“Now this is for the first time the PML-N is going into the polls without any patronage of the establishment rather in fight against it (establishment)…so things are pretty difficult for the PML-N and of course those fighting against the establishment talk about rigging which is an obvious fact in our system of politics,” he says.

Published in Dawn, July 8th, 2018