ISLAMABAD: Major political parties have expressed concern over the latest order of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) that only women polling agents will be allowed at female polling stations across the country.

Leaders of the three main parties — Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) — have also questioned the timing of the order, saying that such “unnecessary actions” make the electoral process controversial.

“The latest order is an explicable departure from the past practice and aimed at leaving female polling stations entirely at the mercy of official polling staff without necessary oversight by the representatives of political parties,” PPP secretary general Farhatullah Khan Babar said on Monday.

Talking to Dawn, Mr Babar said the order had been issued by the ECP when elections were only hours away and “the parties do not have the time to train women polling agents”. He said he had received complaints from various candidates, particularly from rural Sindh, that they had been informed about the ECP decision at the eleventh hour.

PPP, PML-N and PTI say such eleventh-hour actions make electoral process controversial

In the past, the PPP leader said, due to shortage of female election workers in rural areas male polling agents had been posted at female polling stations through a mutual agreement between the contesting candidates who belonged to the same locality, community and extended families.

“Why this abrupt restriction imposed just when the elections are two days away?” he asked.

“If at all it was necessary, the ECP should have issued directives several months ago to enable candidates and parties to train female political workers on how to keep an eye on various facets of polling on election day,” he said.

Mr Babar was of the view that the abrupt order at this stage amounted to leaving the polling stations at the mercy of polling staff to manipulate at will the activities on polling day without oversight of candidates and parties through polling agents.

“The army personnel to be posted at the polling stations are complete strangers to the female voters of the area. If strangers can be posted at female polling stations why not male polling agents belonging to the same locality with the consent of the candidates and parties?” he asked.

“The latest order will only tilt the scales against popular political parties and amounts to pre-poll rigging,” he said, adding that the PPP called upon the ECP to reverse its order and allow male polling agents at the female polling stations with mutual consent of the candidates and parties.

When contacted, spokesmen for the PML-N and the PTI also expressed the same viewpoint that it was not the proper time for the ECP to issue orders having direct impact on the voting process.

PTI information secretary Fawad Chaudhry said that traditionally parties nominated women polling agents at female polling stations, but there should be no such restrictions if such a provision was not available in laws. He also criticised the ECP for it’s another controversial order asking the voters to mention their exact name as given in the computerised national identity card (CNIC) on ballot papers. He was of the view that such directives could create confusion and problems for voters at polling stations.

Mr Chaudhry said it was not the time for the ECP to announce such major decisions as the elections were now just two days away.

PML-N information secretary Mushahid­ullah Khan said the ECP should not take any step which could bring its credibility and independence under question. Besides this, he added, the ECP should desist from taking any measure which could create difficulties for political parties.

He said that apparently there was nothing wrong in the latest ECP directives, but political parties were justified in raising objections to the move because of the timing and the past practice when similar orders were issued to damage certain parties.

When contacted, ECP spokesman Chaudhry Nadeem Qasim said the order had been issued keeping in view “social and moral values”. However, he admitted that legally the ECP could not bind the parties to appoint only women as polling agents as there had been no mention of the gender in laws regarding appointment of polling agents.

The spokesman claimed that in the past too, the ECP had approved appointment of women as polling agents at female polling stations. Even at the combined polling stations, female election staff and female polling agents had been deputed in the past outside the polling booths.

He explained that the main job of polling agents was “identification” of voters and said it would be inappropriate to ask any man to do the exercise. When asked about the presence of male soldiers inside and outside the polling stations, Mr Qasim said that troops had nothing to do with the polling process and identification of voters.

Published in Dawn, July 24th, 2018