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Electoral hurdles

December 07, 2018


ELECTORAL assessments about the July polls have done little to dissipate the misgivings that continue to persist over the conduct of the exercise. They have also underscored the importance of further improvements to the system. A few days ago, a report by Fafen, a network of NGOs working on electoral reform, exonerated the ECP in the controversy surrounding Form-45 — a document that is key to recording accurate results — and the allegation that polling agents were expelled from polling stations during counting. In fact, the network has held that in terms of procedure, Election 2018 was a significant improvement on the elections in 2013. However, its report states that 95pc of the total 78,467 Form-45s for National Assembly constituencies were not signed by polling agents, a problem that, according to a Fafen representative, can only be addressed by strengthening the relevant law. The ECP has responded that Fafen’s figures are incorrectly tabulated.

The absence of polling agents’ signatures is a perennial electoral hurdle in Pakistan, given the sheer numbers and procedural minutiae involved, and a democracy that is still finding its feet. But this year’s election was problematic on several other counts — not to mention the mysterious ‘collapse’ of the RTS system — highlighted in other, equally credible, assessments. According to Pildat, a think tank focusing on strengthening democratic processes, while the polling day process showed improvement over previous elections, the pre-poll phase scored 12pc lower than the pre-poll phase of Election 2013. It also gave the counting, result compilation and transmission of results a score of 40pc — the lowest not only for any single aspect of the entire election, but also in comparison to the corresponding process in every general election in the country since 2002. The EU election observers’ report, released in October, clearly indicated that ingredients of a relatively controversy-free election — ie transparency, an equal playing field and an independent media — were in significant short supply during the entire election period. Indeed, the team of international election observers noted unprecedented procedural roadblocks in accessing information and resources critical to its long-established fact-gathering modus operandi.

This was the first true test of the Elections Act, 2017. Even as the legislation, which was a long time coming, improved certain aspects of the process, such as bringing in more women — both candidates and voters — into the political arena, there are clearly a few sections that need revisiting. Meanwhile, the parliamentary body formed to investigate alleged rigging in the election must begin its work: with more ECP data accessible to the public, the process this time is under scrutiny as never before. Instead, the government and the opposition are currently deadlocked over the panel’s ToRs. Clearly defined ToRs are important to prevent the inquiry from descending into political squabbling, and both sides must find a way to move ahead. A stalemate at this early stage will only strengthen anti-democratic forces.

Published in Dawn, December 7th, 2018