The European Union Election Observation Mission (EU EOM), which had appointed observers for the July 25 elections, said on Friday that although "there were several legal provisions aimed at ensuring a level playing field, there was a lack of equality of opportunity" provided to the contesting parties.
Addressing a press conference in Islamabad, EU Chief Observer Michael Gahler, while releasing the EU EOM's preliminary statement on the election, said, “Despite positive changes to the legal framework with the new Elections Act, and a stronger and more transparent Election Commission, we consider that the electoral process of 2018 was negatively affected by the political environment.”
“Candidates with large political appeal and financial means, the so-called “electables” were reported to often dominate the campaign. Uneven rules on campaign spending further undermined candidates’ equal opportunity,” the EU EOM observed.
“Our overall assessment of the election process is that it is not as good as in 2013,” Michael Gahler, EU monitoring team chief said Friday.
Hoever, in spite of all of his criticism, Gahler said the election results that gave Imran Khan a win were credible.
“Overall the election results are credible,” he added.
The Mission also generally praised the Election Commission of Pakistan's (ECP) role in the conduct of the elections.
The Mission also noted in its preliminary statement that the election day was orderly, "with a preliminary turnout of 52 per cent" despite "two deadly attacks on polling stations in Balochistan, and regional clashes between party supporters".
Praise for Elections Act 2017 and the ECP
According to the EU EOM, the legal framework of the Election Act 2017 provides an adequate basis for the conduct of elections in line with international standards.
"The 2017 Elections Act has significantly improved the legal framework particularly by increasing powers for the ECP, introducing greater transparency requirements and measures aimed at enhancing women’s participation." However, the Mission did observe that the legal framework still contains significant gaps that need to be addressed.
Praising the ECP for the way the election was conducted, the EU EOM observed that the commission is an independent constitutional body with powers and responsibility to conduct elections.
"In the last two years, ECP's leadership has undertaken initiatives to improve its capacity, transparency and accountability," the Mission said, observing that the level of confidence in the institution has increased "due to regular consultations with political parties and civil society organisations."
The EU EOM also observed that the ECP adopted innovative methods to improve women and minority participation in the elections and also tried to introduce "new technologies to improve public outreach."
The Mission admitted that technical aspects of the election process were well-administered and that the ECP did meet operational deadlines.
"However, due to court decisions on the validity of candidate nomination forms, the ECP had to twice extend candidate nomination and scrutiny deadlines," it noted.
Nearly smooth election day process
While the Mission maintained that the voting was well-conducted, it said that the counting process was problematic and that staff did not always follow procedure.
"However, as should be the case in a civilian exercise, the mission observed that it was the presiding officers who were in charge" of the process, EU EOM said, adding that party agents were present in almost all polling stations it observed.
Commenting on the Result Transmission System (RTS) system, the EU EOM acknowledged that result submission from polling stations was severely delayed as the tabulation system "encountered serious technical problems."
The Mission also noted that returning officers were, "not able to receive original result forms and report in a timely manner to the ECP on the progress of results."
The report mentioned that the ECP explained that "the RTS had not been tested in Pakistan before and thus failed to meet the legal deadline to announce provisional results received via RMS by 2:00."
This also resulted in "petitions to higher courts relating to candidacy resulted in delayed printing of ballot papers in some 100 constituencies."
Role of security forces
The Mission said that "a number of violent attacks, targeting political parties, party leaders, candidates and election officials, affected the campaign environment."
The EU observers also "noted the presence of security personnel inside and outside the polling stations in the polling stations observed. At times, they checked voter ID cards and directed voters to the right queue."
Another interesting observation made in the preliminary statement says that security force officials "recorded and transmitted the results, giving the impression of an ongoing parallel tabulation.
Interference in electoral process
"The elections took place against a background of allegations of interference in the electoral process by the military-led establishment and the role of the judiciary as a political actor," the preliminary report from the Mission said, adding that in Pakistan media outlets and journalists "suffer from severe restrictions and curtailment on freedom of expression, which has resulted in extraordinary levels of self-censorship."
The EU EOM also observed that "the electorally sensitive timing, as well as the content of decisions of courts investigating or adjudicating on matters related to high-profile Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz (PML-N) candidates were perceived by several stakeholders as an indication of the politicisation of the judiciary."
"These cases reshaped the political environment ahead of the elections," the mission clearly stated in their preliminary report, echoing concerns from local observers and journalists regarding the lead-up to the polling process.
According to the Mission, "Most interlocutors acknowledged a systematic effort to undermine the former ruling party through cases of corruption, contempt of court and terrorist charges against its leaders and candidates."
Representation of women, minorities and disabled persons
Commenting on violations of the Election Act 2017, the Mission commented that, "the legal requirement to nominate at least five per cent of female candidates was not met by 7.4 per cent of parties."
It also mentioned that unclear provisions on sanctions against the violators of these laws, the ECP failed to take any action against the said political parties.
"Women were reportedly restricted from voting in at least eight constituencies in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab upon agreements between local elders and political parties," EU EOM observed.
"Of the 3.3 million Pakistanis with disabilities, only 165,927 were registered to vote and only three disabled candidates contested the elections," the Mission's statement said
The Mission also mentions that although steps were taken to ensure participation of minorities in the electoral process, "the situation of the Ahmadi community remains unchanged — they are still registered on a separate electoral roll, contrary to constitutional provisions on the equality of citizens and against international law."
Commenting on the Election Act 2017's requirements for candidacy with regards to knowledge of Islam and character, the Mission observed that these provisions "are subjective and were implemented in an inconsistent manner."
According to the statement, over 120 EU observers oversaw "the opening, voting, counting and tabulation processes at 582 polling stations and tabulation centres in 113 constituencies of Punjab, Sindh, Khyber Pakthunkhwa and Islamabad."
Read the full EU EOM report here.