Army should only be deployed outside polling stations: EU mission

Published October 27, 2018
ISLAMABAD: The Chief Observer of the EU Election Observation Mission, Michael Gahler, shows a copy of the final report on the general election during a press conference here on Friday.—Tanveer Shahzad / White Star
ISLAMABAD: The Chief Observer of the EU Election Observation Mission, Michael Gahler, shows a copy of the final report on the general election during a press conference here on Friday.—Tanveer Shahzad / White Star

ISLAMABAD: The European Union Election Observation Mission (EUEOM) has called for limiting the presence of security personnel to outside polling stations and guaranteeing civilian ownership of the conduct of elections.

Unveiling the EUEOM final report at a press conference on Friday, the chief observer of the mission and member of European Parliament, Michael Gahler, said that the mission observed undue presence of military inside the polling stations and stressed that “elections are a civilian exercise”.

The report said that the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) had asked the army to provide security for the distribution of election material and allowed their deployment inside as well as outside polling stations. There were 370,000 army personnel deployed on election day — including many from the reserves — as compared to 70,000 in 2013. In addition to the army, 450,000 police officers were deployed, it added.

Report says pre-election environment was marred by allegations of influence on electoral process by establishment and active role of judiciary in political affairs

“The code of conduct for security officials issued by the ECP on July 6 increased the powers and role of security personnel posted inside and outside of polling stations, including the provision of a parallel structure to report irregularities if the presiding officer did not take action, thus negating the civilian ownership of the electoral process. While a secure environment for voters, candidates and polling staff is essential, the deployment of large numbers of soldiers, and their presence inside polling stations with expanded powers, can result in voter intimidation,” the report stated.

It said various EUEOM interlocutors raised concern over the role of the military inside polling stations, particularly their interventions during the vote count and transmission of the results. “Others described the presence of the army inside polling stations as intimidating and that, in a few cases, it was the security official rather than the presiding officer who was in charge,” it added.

The ECP informed the observation mission that the decision to deploy army personnel outside and inside the polling stations was based on requests from political parties. Political parties, however, told the EUEOM that they had agreed that the army should be deployed only outside. The ECP, it added, did not give reasons why it deviated from its original plan of fielding security personnel only outside polling stations.

The pre-electoral environment was marred by allegations of influence on the electoral process by the military-led establishment and the active role of the judiciary in political affairs, including through its special suo moto jurisdiction, the report observed.

Numerous reports, it added, depicted the armed forces and security agencies pulling strings to persuade candidates of anti-establishment parties to switch allegiance or to run as independents, contributing to splitting the votes and influencing the results.

It also pointed out that media outlets and journalists suffered from undue restrictions on freedom of expression which resulted in widespread self-censorship. Several events prior to and during the campaign pointed to the shrinking space for free speech and genuine pluralism.

The report noted that overall a range of state actors took resolute measures well before the elections to control the public political narrative and to silence any debate that might challenge the role of the military or to promote the supremacy of a civilian-led government.

“Of 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,” the EU mission pointed out. The ECP, it said, included 925 extremist linked candidates in the final candidate list. Several interlocutors and media reports commented on how the ECP implemented the scrutiny procedures on candidate nomination and accepted those candidates.

Pointing out that the Elections Act was largely silent on the role of the Supreme and High Courts in electoral matters, the report said by law, no election could be called into question except by an election tribunal which operated under the auspices of the ECP.

“Nonetheless, during the election period, the courts were petitioned on many occasions. They operated as a de facto parallel system of electoral justice to that of the ECP. Thus, there was uncertainty about the exact extent and limit of the courts’ jurisdiction in electoral matters.”

It noted that the ECP’s voter information campaign was visible in the broadcast media only one week before election day. The EUEOM observed that the ECP’s voter education was not sufficient and was not carried out in a timely manner. Important information on voting procedures and prohibited actions inside polling stations was not well communicated, it regretted, adding that voter education was not tailored for any vulnerable group, including persons with disabilities.

The report recommended amendment in the Elections Act to include voter education covering all stages of the electoral process. Voter education programmes could be implemented through field activities, online, print and broadcast media. The ECP in close cooperation with civil society organisations should design and implement programmes, including for vulnerable groups, it suggested.

Overall, the report observed there was a notable lack of equality of opportunity. Influential landowners and representatives of extended families, the so-called “electables”, were able to generate large political appeal and financial means to secure votes.

The mission noted that the judiciary was increasingly perceived as politicised, owing to numerous high-profile court cases involving the PML-N and the PPP during the campaign. This image was further bolstered by the Chief Justice’s visit to a hospital developed by an Awami Muslim League (AML) candidate.

Public praise of the candidate’s accomplishment appeared to conflict with the ban on the use of development schemes in election campaigning, it added.

Published in Dawn, October 27th , 2018

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