Caretakers, ECP moves make election results controversial

Published February 10, 2024
Election officials count votes after polls end during the Pakistan’s national elections in Karachi on February 8, 2024. — AFP
Election officials count votes after polls end during the Pakistan’s national elections in Karachi on February 8, 2024. — AFP

ISLAMABAD: Over­emphasis on security, mismanagement on part of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) and the eleventh-hour ‘unilateral’ decision of the caretaker government to shut down mobile phone services not only caused delay in the announcement of the election results, but also refreshed the memories of the 2018 RTS controversy, thus making the fairness of the elections doubtful for many.

In addition, some unnecessary statements issued by Chief Election Commi­ssioner (CEC) Sikandar Sultan Raja in defence of the government’s action of suspending the mobile phone and internet services and about the declaration of the results within the stipulated legal timeframe as well as his directives to returning officers (ROs) to announce the results within 30 minutes compounded the perplexed political situation.

This is the inference drawn from views of various election experts and civil society representatives whose opinions were sought on the unfolding situation after unprecedented delay in the an­­nouncement of the results.

A consensus is found among all of them that the Election Management System (EMS) prepared by the ECP for the Feb 8 elections cannot be blamed for the present result fiasco as the system was never used due to non-availability of internet and, therefore, the EMS had no comparison at all with the Result Trans­mission System (RTS) that had been developed by National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra) for the transparent transmission of the results of the elections held on July 25, 2018.

“EMS was a bit more than the RTS that failed in 2018. The additional features of EMS included entry of polling station results into a consolidated spreadsheet in RO’s office. Common feature was that presiding officers (POs) were to take a snapshot of Form 45 and transmit it to the RO before 2am the next day,” said Pakistan Institute for Legislative Development and Transparency (Pildat) president Ahmed Bilal Mehboob.

Mr Mehboob regretted that since the ECP never held a proper inquiry about alleged failure of the RTS and “hence we don’t really know what actually happened in 2018.”

“Apparently there was no technical explanation,” he said, adding that things are shrouded in greater mystery this time as none of the 859 ROs transmitted the results of a constituency by 2am either electronically or manually.

“Even if there was no internet, the Form 45 could have been submitted to the ROs manually and results compiled,” he said.

“It appeared to be a much bigger failure this time and God knows to serve what purpose?” he remarked.

When his attention was drawn towards reports that the presiding officers and other election staff were either not allowed to move out of their respective polling stations or enter the offices of the returning officers by the law enforcement personnel for many hours due to security concerns, he said if it was so, then the ECP should have come out with a response and tell the nation as to what actually happened during the vote count after polling.

Sources said when some political parties approached the ECP and criticised the decision to suspend the mobile phone service, the CEC contacted the government officials, but did not insist on restoring the service when he was told to take the responsibility if any untoward incident took place during the polling process.

Earlier in 2018, the nation had witnessed almost a similar situation when the results after daylong polling were pouring in simultaneously at the ECP, ROs offices and the state-run PTV through the newly-developed state-of-the-art RTS being the entire process suddenly stopped.

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.

The 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.

This was what the nation saw on the screens.

Behind the scene, senior and top officials of 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. The Nadra officials reportedly also produced the “computer log” to the ECP 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 had said while showing no interest to pursue the matter, stating 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.

When contacted, former ECP secretary Kunwar Dilshad termed the present situation a result of the “administrative weakness” of the caretaker government.

He said the EMS could not be blamed for the latest results fiasco, when the new system could not be used by the POs due to the suspension of internet services. And since the decision to suspend the mobile and internet service was taken by the government at the eleventh hour, perhaps without consulting the CEC, the ECP could not tell the POs well in time that they would be required to manually submit the results of their respective polling stations along with the material within the given deadline.

Moreover, he said, there were reports that when the POs were about to leave for the ROs offices, they were stopped by the Rangers and other law enforcement personnel, who told them that they would be escorted to the RO offices due to security concerns and in this way, they remained “hostage” for hours. He said this had been “admitted” by the interior minister in his press conference as well.

And when some 300 POs simultaneously reached the RO offices to deliver the material and the results, it created another chaotic situation.

Published in Dawn, February 10th, 2024

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