ISLAMABAD: The Free and Fair Election Network (Fafen) on Saturday noted that the delay in the preparation and announcement of preliminary election results overshadowed an otherwise orderly election, raising questions about the credibility of the election outcome.

In its preliminary report on recently conducted general elections, Fafen also highlighted that the caretaker government’s suspension of cellular and internet services on election day, regardless of security reasons, undermined years of parliamentary efforts to reform the election results management process through amendments to the Elections Act, 2017, which were meant to maximise the integrity, efficiency and transparency of electoral outcomes.

“Nevertheless, the country has found a closure to a period of unsettling uncertainty that was not only exhausting for the people but also for the economy, with lingering inflation, unemployment and general disenchantment,” the network said.

“Now, it is the responsibility of political parties to bring to end their obstinate disengagement for a smooth transition of power to ensure the much-needed political stability in the country.”

Says caretaker govt’s suspension of mobile services undermined efforts to reform results management

Fafen said in the report that around 60 million voters went to the polls in Pakistan on Feb 8 to elect their representatives in 265 National Assembly and 590 provincial assembly constituencies in one of the country’s most competitive political contests.

It said that plausibly due to the supply of fewer copies than required at every polling station, presiding officers at more than one quarter (28.4 per cent) of the 2,761 polling stations covered by the preliminary report did not provide a copy of Form 45 (result of the count) to Fafen observers, as clearly required by the Elections Act, 2017.

Similarly, presiding officers at around half (49pc) of these polling stations did not provide the observers with Form 46 (ballot paper account), again a violation of clear legal provisions.

In addition, Form 45 was not affixed at a conspicuous place outside almost one-third (29.4pc) of the observed polling stations, a measure that is necessary to ensure electoral transparency at the first critical stage of the result management process.

It said that compared to the relative procedural transparency at polling stations, Fafen’s observers were not as consistently permitted at the offices of returning officers (ROs) to observe the preparation process of preliminary electoral results.

Of 244 National Assembly constituencies, ROs in only about half (114) of the constituencies allowed Fafen observers to witness the result tabulation proceedings. The fact that ROs in 130 constituencies refused permission to observers contravened the instructions by the ECP to allow all independent observation of all stages of election result preparation, a vital measure for electoral transparency.

The constituencies where Fafen observers were refused permission included 78 in Punjab, 21 in Sindh, 17 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, 11 in Balochistan and three in the Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT). Restrictions on one or more candidates and their agents to be present at the tabulation proceedings were also reported from 66 NA constituencies, including 46 in Punjab, 10 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, five in Sindh, three in Balochistan and two in ICT.

During the nomination process, 171 returning officers refused to allow Fafen observers to inspect the nomination papers of contesting candidates as per Form 31 (notice in respect of nominated candidates), disregarding the provision of Section 60(7) of the Elections Act.

Similarly, 88 returning officers barred Fafen observers from observing the candidate scrutiny process. A similar pattern was also observed in earlier general elections where ROs tended to act independently.

As many as 1.6 million ballots were excluded from the count by the presiding officers at polling stations in 235 NA constituencies. This number is almost the same as that excluded during the 2018 general elections.

Fafen’s analysis suggests that there are 25 NA constituencies where the number of ballots excluded from the count exceeds the margin of victory, including 23 in Punjab and one each in KP and Sindh.

The network also mentioned in the report that the late delimitation of constituencies, triggered after the announcement of the seventh digital population census days before the dissolution of the National Assembly in August 2023, delayed the elections beyond the constitutionally stipulated 90-day period and created a disadvantage for political parties and candidates in their election preparations.

The report noted that the ECP did not publish progressive polling station-wise results on its website. The adherence to the recent amendments to the Elections Act, particularly focusing on improving the efficiency and transparency of the election result management process, remained weak, raising questions on the integrity of the election outcome.

The recent amendments to the Elections Act required the ROs to issue Form 47 (provisional consolidated statement of the result of the count) at 2am the day following the election day, even if it is partially complete, and to complete by 10am the provisional result at any cost.

However, the ROs failed to issue progressive results despite the Election Commission’s post-midnight instructions that were also publicised, and voters had to rely on media coverage of polling station results, with many making conclusions based on incomplete information.

Published in Dawn, February 11th, 2024

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