The ECP has given magisterial powers to army officers on election duty, but what does that really mean?
Having sanctioned the heaviest-ever army deployment for an election in Pakistani history, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has doubled down on election security by issuing a notification giving first class magisterial powers to armed forces and civilian officials tasked with securing and conducting the election.
There is a distinction in the powers granted to army personnel, which relate largely to maintenance of law and order, and those granted to presiding officers (PO), returning officers (RO) and district returning officers (DRO), which are limited to ensuring no rigging takes place.
According to the ECP, ROs and DROs will only be able to punish individuals for impersonation (under Section 169), while POs will be able to additionally take action if anyone attempts to capture a polling booth (under Section 171).
On the other hand, officers of the armed forces and civil armed forces in charge of providing security to polling stations have been given sweeping powers to try and convict anyone who runs afoul of them.
Here's how that will work: in case security personnel observe any malpractice on election day, they have been asked to first report immediately to ECP-appointed presiding officers (PO) posted at polling stations.
If the ECP's officers fail to act, the personnel can then approach the officer in-charge of security at the polling station, who may exercise their magisterial powers powers and punish offenders under Sections 174,176, 177,183 and 194 of the Elections Act, 2017.
These laws are elaborated upon below; but, in brief, security officials will be able to arrest without a warrant any individual believed to be impersonating someone else or to be involved in any illegality.
They will also have the power to punish "in a summary way" individuals involved in "corrupt or illegal practices", which includes canvassing (asking for votes) near a polling station, disturbing voters or interfering with the duties of election officers.
Although the punishments stated in the Elections Act extend up to three years imprisonment and a fine of up to Rs100,000, the rules for summary trials — which are conducted on the spot, wherever an offence is taking place — will also apply.
As stated in the Criminal Procedures Code, summary trials are only allowed for offences that are punishable with up to six months of imprisonment.
This means, essentially, that anyone can be sentenced to jail, on the spot, for six months (but not longer) if they run afoul of security officials.
Elections Act 2017:
169 - Personation.—
A person is guilty of personation, if he votes or applies for a ballot paper for voting, as some other person whether that other person is living or dead or fictitious.
171 - Capturing a polling station or polling booth.—
A person is guilty of capturing a polling station or polling booth if he:
(a) seizes a polling station or a polling booth or a place fixed for the poll or makes polling authorities surrender the ballot papers or ballot box or both and does any other act which affects the orderly conduct of elections;
(b) takes possession of a polling station or a polling booth or a place fixed for the poll and allows his supporters to exercise their right to vote while preventing others from free exercise of their right to vote;
(c) coerces, intimidates or threatens, directly or indirectly, any voter and prevents him from going to the polling station or a place fixed for the poll to cast his vote; or
(d) being in the service of any Government or corporation or institution controlled by the Government, commits all or any of the aforesaid activities or aids or connives in, any such activity in furtherance of the prospects of the election of a candidate
174 - Penalty for corrupt practice.—
Any person guilty of the offence of corrupt practice shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years or with fine which may extend to one hundred thousand rupees or with both.
176 - Disorderly conduct near polling station.—
A person is guilty of disorderly conduct near a polling station if he, on the polling day:
(a) uses, in such manner as to be audible within the polling station, any gramophone, megaphone, loudspeaker or other apparatus for reproducing or amplifying sounds;
(b) persistently shouts in such manner as to be audible within the polling station;
(c) does any act which— (i) disturbs or causes annoyance to any voter visiting a polling station for the purpose of voting; or (ii) interferes with the performance of the duty of an election official or any person on duty at a polling station; or
(d) abets the doing of any of these acts.
177 - Canvassing in or near the polling station.—
A person is guilty of canvassing in or near a polling station if he, on the polling day:
(a) within a radius of four hundred meters of a polling station— (i) canvasses for votes; (ii) solicits the vote of any voter; (iii) persuades any voter not to vote at the election or for a particular candidate; or
(b) exhibits, except with the permission of the Returning Officer and at a place reserved for the candidate or his election agent beyond the radius of one hundred meters of the polling station, any notice, sign or flag designed to encourage the voters to vote or discourage the voters from voting, for any contesting candidate.
183 - Penalty for illegal practice.—
A person guilty of the offence of illegal practice shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years or with fine which may extend to one hundred thousand rupees or with both.
194 - Powers of a Police Officer.—
A Police Officer may:
(a) arrest without warrant, notwithstanding anything contained in the Code, any person who— (i) commits personation or an offence under section 183 if the Presiding Officer directs him to arrest such person; or (ii) while being removed from the polling station by the Presiding Officer, commits any offence at the polling station;
(b) remove any notice, sign, banner or flag used in contravention of section 177 [see above]; and
(c) seize any instrument or apparatus used in contravention of section 176 [see above] and take such steps, including use of force, as may be reasonably necessary for preventing such contravention.