A matter of form

Published February 25, 2024
The writer is president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development And Transparency.
The writer is president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development And Transparency.

AT the centre of the raging controversy over the Feb 8 election results are two forms prescribed in Election Rules, 2017: Form-45 is the Result of the [vote] Count prepared by the presiding officer at each polling station and Form-47 is the Provisional Consolidated Statement of results of the vote count of all polling stations in a constituency prepared by the concerned Returning Officer (RO) before including the received postal ballots in the count.

These two and some other associated forms like the Ballot Paper Account of each polling station (Form-46), Consolidated Statement of the Results of the Count Furnished by the Presiding Officers including the count of postal ballots (Form-48) and Final Consolidated Result (Form-49) constitute the backbone of the system of electoral transparency guaranteed by Elections Act, 2017.

Primarily, there are three pillars which sustain the integrity of the electoral process (especially on polling day) operations in Pakistan. The first pillar is the correctness of the information recorded in Forms 45 to 49. If there are flaws in the basic information contained in Form-45 and the obvious errors and omissions such as an incorrect total are not checked by the RO at the time of receiving Form-45, the errors, in all probability, will be carried through, leading to incorrect results for the constituency.

Although both the presiding officer and senior-most assistant presiding officer at each polling station are required to sign, affix their thumb impressions, and record their CNIC numbers, certifying that they have checked and verified the completed form, many Form-45s generally contain errors, and, in some cases, the signatures of the officers are missing. The law also requires that the completed Form-45 also be signed by the polling agents of the candidates but in the 2018 election, 90 per cent of the forms uploaded on the ECP website did not contain the signature of any polling agent, raising questions about the credibility of the forms. Such scrutiny of Form-45s in the 2024 election is yet to be undertaken as the forms have not been uploaded on the ECP website yet.

There are three pillars which sustain the integrity of polling day operations.

The second pillar of poll integrity is sharing information with all candidates and political parties through their polling and election agents, and the media and public at large soon thereafter. In order to ensure complete transparency, an authenticated copy of Form-45 has to be handed to the polling agent of each candidate according to Elections Act, 2017. In fact, the law also requires that a copy of Form-45 be pasted outside each polling station for the information of the public.

Unlike 2018 election, when the most common complaint on polling day was that polling agents had been excluded from vote counting at the polling stations and quite a few of them were reportedly not given signed copies of Form-45, not many such complaints were heard in election 2024. The most complaints regarding polling day this time do not appear to be related to polling stations where most polling agents seem to have received the completed Form-45. This time the bulk of complaints related to the operations in the ROs’ office where reportedly many candidates and their agents were not allowed to be present during the consolidation process to prepare Form-47, and resultantly, many candidates reported wide divergences between the number of votes recorded in Form-45 and the ones subsequently entered in Form-47.

A major controversy revolves round the alleged discrepancy between these two forms. Many candidates declared to have lost the election have complained that the sum total of the votes obtained by them and recorded on Form-45 does not tally with the total votes shown in Form-47. These complaints raise serious questions about both the correctness of information contained in Form-47 and the transparency of the consolidation process threatening the credibility of the polls.

The third critical pillar supporting the edifice of polling day integrity is the timeliness of sharing the information contained in these forms and the declaration of results. Timeliness is not necessarily the swiftness with which the results are declared; it is living up to the promised legal timeline. Some countries like India have a system of counting votes and declaring election results days and weeks after polling day, and that works fine for them without compromising the credibility of polls because their election commission fulfils the legal timelines. Pakistan has its own specific poll timelines built into the election laws and rules, and violating such legal provisions has serious implications for the credibility of elections.

The proviso in Section 13(3) of the Elections Act clearly delineates the timeline of declaration of provisional election results, according to which each RO is bound to compile the complete provisional results by 2 a.m. on the day immediately following polling day. If, for any reason, this is not possible, the RO “shall send the complete provisional results as soon as compiled but not later than 10 a.m.” Since almost all of the 859 returning officers violated the timeline and the complete provisional results were not declared even after a lapse of 48 hours beyond the final deadline, serious questions about the integrity of election are being raised.

Another important aspect of the system of transparency and timeliness of declaring results is clearly spelled out in Section 95(8) and (10) of the Elections Act. These legal provisions demand that “the Commission shall within 14 days from the date of the poll, publish the documents on its website”. The documents referred to in the law are Forms 45, 46, 48 and 49. As the deadline of 14 days expired on Feb 22 without the ECP uploading the documents on its website, another serious legal lapse has occurred, which appears to have further undermined the perception of integrity and credibility of the electoral process. It seems that the ECP will have to do a lot of explaining in order to counter such negative perceptions.

The writer is president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development And Transparency.

president@pildat.org

X: @ABMPildat

Published in Dawn, February 25th, 2024

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