ISLAMABAD: The returning officer (RO) for recently held by-election in Daska proposed on Tuesday re-polling at 14 controversial polling stations while providing to the Election Commis­sion of Pakistan a comparative chart of forms-45 submitted by the presiding officers and the PML-N candidate from the constituency — showing a huge difference in voters’ turnout, votes polled and rejected ballots.

The report was presented to the commission when it took up a petition filed by PML-N candidate from the constituency Nousheen Iftikhar. The five-member bench which heard the case was headed by Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Sikandar Sultan Raja.

According to the papers submitted by Ms Iftikhar, she secured 5,000 votes from the controversial polling stations against 6,705 obtained by her rival Ali Asjad Malhi of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI). The number of rejected votes was just 139 and the turnout remained 45.16 per cent.

On the other hand, according to the form-45 received by the RO from the presiding officers after an inordinate delay of around six hours, the gap between votes secured by the PTI and PML-N candidates was 9,263 instead of 1,705.

Records submitted by presiding officers, PML-N candidate show huge difference in voter turnout; PTI gets two days to furnish record

According to the form, Mr Malhi secured 12,763 votes and Ms Iftikhar only 3,500 votes. The form puts the number of rejected votes at 1,731 and the turnout at 75.34pc.

The RO’s report, a copy of which is available with Dawn, discloses that only 13 out of the total 20 presiding officers, who had mysteriously disappeared for the entire night after vote count at their polling stations, came to join the inquiry conducted by the provincial election commissioner and the joint provincial election commissioner of Punjab in Daska and that too after a delay of over three hours.

They had been called at 1pm but started arriving one by one after 4pm. Of the 13 presiding officers, eight were interviewed one-by-one.

“The replies of almost all the presiding officers were stereotype that they were able to complete the counting process by 10 to 10.30 pm and started back journey to the office of returning officer on the transport provided by the Election Commission and in escort of police but due to fog, they reached the office of returning officer at about 4.30am and most of them stated their phone batteries were low and they were having no chargers, in response to the questions that they were supposed to send snapshots of the result of the count through WhatsApp but they did not do the same,” the report reads.

The report says there was no discrepancy in the record of three out of the total 23 polling stations from where the presiding officers had disappeared.

The returning officer has proposed re-polling at 14 polling stations were there was a marked difference between number of polled votes in two different sets of form-45.

During the course of the hearing, the returning officer appeared to have changed his position when he said the administration was cooperating with him. He said 19 presiding officers could not be contacted and one of them did not attend phone call. The RO said there was a distance of 30 to 40 kilometres between the polling stations from where the result was awaited and his office.

Answering a question, he said in normal weather it would have taken around two hours to cover the distance.

On this, the CEC asked whether police were contacted on wireless. The RO said the police also could not be contacted as weather was not fine that day. He said some presiding officers said their car had broken down. ECP member from KP justice (retd) Irshad Qaiser asked if the commission’s driver had been asked if the car had broken down. Member from Punjab Justice (retd) Altaf Ibrahim Qureshi asked if an attempt had been made to trace location of the missing presiding officers.

The CEC told the RO he appeared to be worried when he contacted the commission on the election night and he replied there was a crowd outside.

Mr Qureshi taunted the RO by saying: “You appear to be backtracking on what you said earlier.”

Salman Akram Raja, the counsel for the PML-N candidate, said the press release issued by the ECP after the polling was historic and it said it all. He said the disappearance of the presiding officers was meant to divert attention from rigging in the entire constituency.

He said on the polling day an atmosphere of fear had been created by firing and Covid-19 standard operating procedures were used to prevent people from voting.

He said documents pertaining to the situation in the constituency would be submitted along with affidavits.

PML-N candidate Nousheen Iftikhar said on the complaint of stoppage of voting, a DSP threatened to open fire at her.

PTI candidate Ali Asjad Malhi said the 23 polling stations were his stronghold and claimed that the PML-N would lose the election after inclusion of results of these polling stations.

His counsel Ali Bukhari sought a week’s time from the ECP to submit record.

Justice (retd) Qaiser said the ECP could go for reopening some or all polling stations. The ECP adjourned the hearing till Thursday.

Meanwhile, federal Information Minister Shibli Faraz has said Prime Minister Imran Khan has always accepted challenges and has made an important announcement on the demand of the PML-N for re-polling at 23 polling stations. He chided the opposition by saying those who promoted corruption wanted secret ballot for Senate polls. He said the people knew what were the motives of those opposing open voting. He said the final decision regarding NA-75 (Daska) by-poll would be taken by the ECP.

In a related development, the Free and Fair Election Network in a report on the by-polls has observed that the happenings in NA-75 warrant bold actions by the ECP to stop the “militarisation” of future elections. “The firing incidents outside the polling stations and in NA-75 and overnight disappearance of presiding officers of 20 polling stations and critical election material, including ballots, resulted from the failure of police and security forces, who were responsible for safe and prompt delivery of election material to the office of the returning officer. “To tackle situations like this, these, the Commission should consider exercising its powers under Section 55 of the Elections Act, 2017. It should penalise, as per law, all public servants and election officials who are found involved in obstructing polls’ impartial and fair conduct and influencing results,” the report reads.

Published in Dawn, February 24th, 2021

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