ISLAMABAD: Two international election observation missions — one from the European Union and the other from the Commonwealth — on Friday observed that the army troops deployed at polling stations did not take over the polling process and only assisted the presiding officers in the general elections.
The heads of the EU and Commonwealth missions, however, expressed concern over the environment in which the elections were held and highlighted the need for improvement in the procedure for counting of ballot papers.
Speaking at a press conference, EU’s election observation mission chief Michael Gahler while presenting the mission’s preliminary report said the troops did not take over the process that was conducted by the presiding officers, but the environment in which the elections were held was of a major concern.
“A number of violent attacks, targeting political parties, party leaders, candidates and election officials, affected the campaign environment. 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. 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. Of further concern was the emergence of extremist parties with affiliations either to terrorist groups, or individuals linked to organisations that have used, incited or advocated violence,” stated the report of Gahler-led mission.
Voice concern over the environment in which elections were held
Mr Gahler said positive changes to the legal framework were overshadowed by restrictions on freedom of expression and unequal opportunity to campaign. “Media outlets and journalists suffered from restrictions, which resulted in self-censorship,” he remarked.
He noted that the electoral process of 2018 was negatively affected by the political environment.
The report stated polling day was orderly with a preliminary turnout of 52 per cent despite the two deadly attacks on polling stations in Balochistan and regional clashes between party supporters. The EU mission observed the presence of security personnel inside and outside the polling stations and noted that they checked voters’ identity cards at times and directed voters to the right queue.
During counting, the troops also recorded and transmitted the results, giving the impression of an ongoing parallel tabulation, the mission observed. Party agents were present at almost all polling stations, they observed. Voting was assessed as well-conducted and transparent though counting was sometimes problematic, with staff not always following the procedures. Difficulties were also observed in completing result forms. The Result Transmission System (RTS) encountered serious technical problems in submission of results from polling stations and thus returning officers were not able to receive original result forms and report in a timely manner to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) on the progress of results. The ECP explained that the RTS had not been tested in Pakistan before. The ECP did not meet the legal deadline to announce provisional results received via RMS by 2am.
The report noted that technical aspects of the election process were well-administered. The ECP met key operational deadlines. However, due to court decisions on the validity of candidate nomination forms, the ECP twice extended candidate nomination and scrutiny deadlines. Petitions to higher courts relating to candidacy resulted in delayed printing of ballot papers in some 100 constituencies.
It stated the legal requirement to nominate at least five per cent of female candidates was not met by 7.4pc parties. But due to unclear provisions on sanctions, the ECP took no action. Women were reportedly restricted from voting in at least eight constituencies in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab upon agreements between local elders and political parties. Female candidates were largely invisible. Of the 3.3 million persons with disabilities, only 165,927 were registered to vote and only three disabled candidates contested the elections.
The head of the European Parliament’s delegation to the election observation mission, Jean Lambert, fully endorsed the preliminary statement of the EU’s election observation mission. She then discussed a number of issues including access of voters with disabilities to polling stations and women’s participation in the elections.
“We appreciate the efforts made by the Election Commission to aim for greater inclusion in the electoral process, particularly through the Gender and Disabilities Working Group,” said Ms Lambert. “We look forward to further progress. After all, the five per cent quota for women candidates is just a starting point, and more in winnable seats would be welcome.”
Unlike the previous election observation missions to Pakistan, the EU’s mission this time faced unprecedented delay in the deployment of its observers. According to Mr Gahler, this had repercussions on the mission’s ability to observe and thoroughly assess some areas of the electoral process.
Addressing a separate press conference, Gen Abdulsalami A. Abubakar, chairperson of the Commonwealth Group and former military head of the state of Nigeria, said the 2018 general election was an important milestone in strengthening democracy in Pakistan. “We commend people of Pakistan who have shown commitment to exercising their right to vote,” he said while reading out a preliminary statement at a press conference.
He said the ECP did a laudable job in terms of the short timeframe it had to implement its mandate for holding transparent elections on schedule. “We urge those who have grievances to seek redress through the established channels of dispute resolution,” he remarked.
He observed that there was a scope for improvement in the procedure for counting the ballot papers in order to uphold transparency of the process. He said under the supervision of the ECP, there was visible security deployment of both police and army personnel. “Although some stakeholders had expressed concern about presence of army personnel inside the polling stations, we noted that many of the voters whom we encountered were comfortable with their presence. Overall we did not form the impression that the security presence deterred the electoral process,” he remarked.
Published in Dawn, July 28th, 2018