KARACHI, April 18: Saying that while he has taken note of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement’s “concerns” regarding the recently released European Union (EU) report on the country’s national and provincial assemblies’ elections held on February 18, the EU’s Election Observation Mission’s chief observer, Michael Gahler, asserted he stands by the report and has nothing to change.

Mr Gahler, accompanied by deputy chief observer Hannah Roberts, was speaking at a press conference held at the Karachi Press Club on Friday.

Reportedly, the Muttahida has taken offence to some of the findings and the phrasing of certain parts of the report and communicated their displeasure to Mr Gahler when he visited the party’s headquarters – Nine Zero – on Thursday. “I can confirm that the MQM is not happy with some of our findings. However, I have been misinterpreted in certain sections of the press. The media has put words in my mouth. But I’m not taking back the substance of my report. I endorse my report,” Michael Gahler said.

The text the Muttahida is reportedly unhappy about can be found on page 15 of the 69 page report (downloadable from the mission’s website, www.eueompakistan.org) under the subheading ‘C: Key political actors,’ though the MQM’s acronym has erroneously been spelt out as ‘Muttahida Qaumi Mahaz.’

It reads: “The MQM has a reputation for strong control, sometimes including the use of force, violence and intimidation.”

Mr Gahler was quick to observe that this was a reflection of different stakeholders’ views. He said during his Karachi visit, aside from the MQM, he had also met representatives of the Pakistan People’s Party and the Awami National Party. He claimed some people had told him the report had taken a very “mild” view of the MQM’s alleged activities.

Another bothersome detail in the report that may have ruffled the MQM’s feathers is the inference of foul play in two of Karachi’s National Assembly’s constituencies (NA-241 and 249), both won by Muttahida candidates. S.A. Iqbal Qadri returned from NA-241 while Dr Farooq Sattar was declared the winner for NA-249.

Under the subheading ‘B: Complaints relating to election results,’ the report says on p55: “In NA-241 (Karachi III), in 44 polling stations (out of 170) the winning candidate received more than 1,000 votes while the second candidate received 20 or less. In all 44 polling stations the winner was the MQM candidate. The margin of victory between the successful (MQM) candidate and the runner-up (ANP) was 57,381 votes.”

As for NA-249, it states: “In NA-249 (Karachi XI), out of 147 polling stations, in 59 cases the winning candidate received more than 1,000 votes while the second candidate received 100 votes or less. In 30 cases the winner was the MQM candidate, in 27 cases the PPPP candidate and in two cases the MMA candidate. The margin of victory between the successful (MQM) candidate and the runner-up (PPPP) was 30,522 votes.”

‘Information is not conclusive’

“This information is not conclusive evidence of malpractice but is strongly indicative of possible irregular activities, which warrants follow-up by the electoral authorities,” the report observes on p56.

Terming the mission a “huge undertaking,” Michael Gahler said that among the team’s recommendations was reform of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). He claimed the “stakeholders” he had talked to in Islamabad and Karachi, including the prime minister, information minister and political parties, supported this.

“It is now or never. After an election it is the time to set the record straight, before the next election,” he observed. He said the ECP should be reconstituted “through multi-party consultations in parliament so it can be truly independent.”

He added the structure of the ECP should be made more effective, specifically stating that it should take timely action on complaints. “Some complaints from the 2002 elections have not been addressed,” he said, while the EU report says 39 petitions remain outstanding from 2002.

Mr Gahler said the role of the media was crucial and quite different from 2002, adding that despite deficits, it could play a better role in informing the public on the role of parties. “The state media was not balanced in its reporting while the private media, as a whole, represented different viewpoints.”

He said there was a lack of representation of rural women at the national level, while adding that minorities also need better representation.

The chief observer said that overall, the election process was “pluralistic and competitive, though there was not a level playing field as the official media supported state-backed parties, as did some of the local nazims,” adding that though there was an acceptance of the results, there were “pockets of malpractice.”

He said the European Union was willing to support Pakistan’s process of democratization, adding that the EU’s High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana was due to visit Pakistan on Tuesday.

Mr Gahler said that if electoral reforms are not addressed, the issue will become a “hot potato.”