KARACHI: The NA-240 by-elections, which took place on a hot and humid Thursday that also happened to be a working day, started with a very low voter turnout but ended with brisk polling and violent clashes.
Even five hours after start of the polling, the election staff and presiding officers at many stations were found sitting quietly waiting for voters.
At the N.A. Abbasi Govt Boys Secondary School in Landhi No. 2, only six votes were cast by 1pm. But the station was still one of the better ones as by this time there were no votes cast at another station in the C-1 Area.
With so little to go by, one drew one’s attention to the party posters flags fluttering at roundabouts and from light poles. Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) had new flags. Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P) and Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP) had the next best banners and Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) only showed its presence in the shape of wall chalking or a poster here or there.
Election staff remained without EC guidance, essential facilities
Some party workers could be spotted and identified from their caps, T-shirts or monogrammed shirt pockets. The voters already knew which election symbol to stamp. As always PPP was going with the arrow as MQM-P had their kite and PSP the dolphin. The symbol for MQM-H was the candle and for TLP it was the crane. But there were some quite amusing symbols, too, such as a harmonium and pressure cooker for the 25 lesser known contestants.
A leisurely half a day saw mostly elderly voters being accompanied and helped by a responsible family member. Where they were alone, they mostly could not find their polling stations and returned home without casting their votes.
There were several polling stations within one school building. The election staff including presiding officers comprising grade 17, 18 and 19 officers had their own challenges. Although polling stations had CCTV cameras fitted at ideal places, many were sans lights or fans. The polling staff -- all school and college teachers on this special duty -- also remained without any guidance from the Election Commission when they needed it.
“We arrived here last evening to find no working lights or fans,” the presiding officer at the Govt Boys Secondary School in Landhi, Prof Munnawar Abbas, told Dawn, adding that they also did not have access to clean drinking water or working toilets.
“Since we had no prior instructions about where to set up polling stations, we selected some airy rooms to do so by ourselves. But this morning at around 10am, i.e after two hours of polling, we were informed by the Election Commission that they had installed cameras in some rooms where we should set up the polling stations,” he said.
“There are eight to nine polling stations in the school. I am the presiding officer for polling station No.69,” said Prof Zafar Qureshi, who added that he was confronted by a mob when he started moving the polling station from a camera-less room to a room with camera.
“The mob represented various parties and they accused me and my staff of rigging. Why else would we be changing rooms and moving ballot boxes? They also had a point. But really they had no patience or manners to hear us out. PSP was the worst. PSP accused us of supporting MQM,” he said.
Prof Munnawar Abbas then added that at that time they also didn’t have any security. “No police and no Rangers. Then when we complained to the media and threatened to stop the polling, did the police arrive to give us cover,” he said.
“But we also want the Rangers here for security when we start to count the votes. We can go hungry and thirsty but we require proper lighting also to be able to count the votes properly,” he said.
A better turnout was expected after 4pm (since it was also a working day), but that is also when all hell broke lose as frustrated party workers and their chiefs clashed. Starting from accusation of stealing ballot paper, it all ended with terrible violence including fistfights and use of weapons and firearms, too.
If it were a fighting competition, TLP and PSP would be close contenders for the prize. MQM, too, would have found a place on the victory stand. But it was not that kind of a competition. The only thing that came out of it all was fractured arms, broken noses, bleeding heads and bruised ribs, not to mention bruised egos.
Meanwhile, using their shirt sleeves to clean the sweat off foreheads that were not bleeding, the polling staff settled down on broken tables and rickety chairs to count the votes in dim light.
Published in Dawn,June 17th, 2022