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ISLAMABAD: It was all going smoothly till 11:47pm on July 25. The results after daylong polling were pouring in with the expected pace simultaneously at the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), the offices of the returning officers (ROs) and the state-run Pakistan Television through the newly-developed state-of-the-art Result Transmission System (RTS), when all of a sudden, the whole process came to a standstill.

As the flow of results stopped abruptly, there was confusion everywhere with no one knowing where exactly the problem was. This was the time when the political parties, which had already been crying foul over the alleged forcible expulsion of their political agents from polling stations during vote count, began expressing their suspicion over the counting process.

Analysis: Perceptions of election rigging

And then ECP Secretary Babar Yaqoob Fateh Mohammad appeared on TV screens well after midnight just to inform the nation that the RTS had “collapsed”. He announced that the ECP was returning to the traditional method of manually tabulating the results and, therefore, there could be an inordinate delay in the release of unofficial results.

Investigation reveals presiding officers were instructed to stop using RTS though it had never crashed

This was what the nation saw on the screens.

Behind the scene, senior and top officials of the National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra) — the creators of the RTS mobile app — were protesting with the ECP for, what they called, making a “wrong announcement” since the RTS was “fully functional” even after the controversial news conference of the ECP secretary.

Computer log

The Nadra officials also produced the “computer log” to the secretary showing normal transmission of the results through the system. But they were simply told by the ECP officials that they had decided to stop using the RTS because it had started “malfunctioning”.

“It was in the best national interest and to avoid any further controversy” that Nadra preferred not to react over the secretary’s presser,” sources in Nadra said.

They told Dawn that if the Nadra officials had reacted over the controversial announcement of the ECP secretary, it could have aggravated the already tense political situation and the media might have played it up as a confrontation between the two institutions.

The sources said at about 11:47pm, the presiding officers and the ROs were informed over the phone through the provincial election commissioners that they should stop using the RTS “as a problem has occurred” in the system.

The sources said Nadra officials did not know the reason for all this faux pas, but they believed that perhaps it was the ECP’s own costly Result Management System (RMS) that had stopped functioning and the ECP had put the blame on Nadra only as a cover-up. They said that RTS and RMS were independent systems and there was no integration between the two.

Nadra got nearly 50pc results through RTS

In all, the sources said, the ECP and Nadra were to receive over 170,000 results (Forms 45) of the national and provincial assembly constituencies directly from over 85,000 polling stations. Nadra had received over 84,000 of them (nearly 50 per cent) through the RTS, they added.

Take a look: 'The parties' claims over Form-45 have put a question mark on the elections'

Claiming that the RTS had never crashed, the sources said Nadra did not have the remaining results, because the presiding officers after receiving instructions from the ECP authorities stopped using the RTS. They said the presiding officers were also given instructions to travel to the RO offices for tabulation of results.

The sources said Nadra officials were upset over the development, because Nadra had developed this system and provided this additional support to the ECP under an agreement with the commission in February 2018. As “the RTS has no mention in the Elections Act, 2017”, it had nothing to do with the official announcement of the results by the ECP, the sources explained. The system, the sources said, was only meant for the quick announcement of the results for the media through the ECP and that was why its link had been provided to PTV as well.

Nadra hiding its own weaknesses: ECP

A spokesman for the ECP Nadeem Qasim refuted the Nadra’s claim that RMS might have failed on the election night, reiterating the stance that the RTS had crashed. He alleged that Nadra was making these claims only to hide its own “weaknesses”.

Mr Qasim explained that under the plan, the presiding officers were in any case required to reach the RO offices under the “security cover” even after sending the results through the RTS to physically submit Forms 45. However, he said, after the “collapse” of the RTS, the presiding officers simultaneously reached the RO offices and it took longer than the required time to enter the data of each polling station.

When his attention was drawn towards the Nadra’s claim that it possessed nearly 50pc results which it had received through the RTS, Mr Qasim said: “There’s no use of making claim of having such a data seven days after the results.”

He said the ECP wanted the RTS to produce results within a few hours after completion of the polling process as there was no use of the RTS otherwise. He also refuted the Nadra’s claim that the RTS had no mention in the Elections Act.

Responding to a question, the spokesman said the ECP would welcome any kind of inquiry into the matter as there must be “fact-finding” to end the controversy.

When contacted, a spokesman for Nadra refused to give any official reaction, terming it a sensitive matter. “I can neither deny nor confirm,” said the spokesman when his comments were sought on the situation.

Parliamentary commission demanded

The political parties, including the PPP and the PML-N, have already agreed in principle to demand the formation of a parliamentary commission to probe poll rigging charges.

Talking to Dawn, PPP secretary general Farhatullah Babar said traditionally polls day manipulation took place in the RO offices at the time of consolidation of results and the RTS had been introduced to reduce the role of the ROs.

“The RTS worked perfectly well on election day for some hours until someone was scared by the prospects of eliminating the role of ROs altogether and decided to discontinue it,” he alleged, while calling for a “forensic audit” to find answers to a number of questions.

“Did the RTS actually collapse, at what time and what caused the collapse? If it did not actually collapse who in the ECP decided to stop the RTS by declaring it was malfunctioning and on whose instructions he did so?” Mr Babar went on saying.

“Just call the officers of the ECP and Nadra before the parliamentary committee in an open public hearing and all pieces of the jigsaw puzzle will fall into place,” he added.

RTS and RMS

The RMS is offline software installed in a computer at RO office that also has a trained data entry operator. The RO receives results from presiding officers on Form 45, mostly hard copies and the operator enters results in RMS. When results from all the polling stations have been received, RMS is instructed to generate Form 47 which is consolidated result of that constituency. This Form is then faxed to the ECP that uploads it on its website.

However, the RTS is an entirely different system meant to transmit Form 45 from polling stations to RO offices and the ECP Secretariat using a smartphone and around 170,000 POs and other officials had been trained in the month of July to use this mobile app.

Section 13 of the Elections Act states: “the Commission shall establish a transparent results management system for expeditious counting, tabulation, compilation, transmission, dissemination and publication of results in the official gazette and on the website of the Commission.”

It further says: “The PO shall immediately take snapshot of the result of the count and, as soon as connectivity is available and it is practicable, electronically send it to the Commission and the RO before sending the original documents under Section 90.”

Published in Dawn, August 2nd, 2018