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Polling stations security: outdated criteria

May 03, 2013

Polling stations that are considered sensitive have been identified and the military has been deployed to provide them security, but no one seems to have raised concern about the outdated criteria used as the basis of such categorisation.

At a time when the main threat to the electoral exercise is from the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and militancy, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has identified polling stations as sensitive based on the past history of violence there, which is usually related to local groups and rivalries between contesting candidates.

When contacted to find out the mechanism behind the identification of sensitive polling stations, an ECP official told Dawn that the district governments and district election commissions conduct the exercise keeping in view the history of violence at various polling stations. The provincial election commissions gather reports from district offices and prepare consolidated lists of sensitive polling stations, and the categorisation is sent to the ECP headquarters.

He conceded that the list of over 21,000 sensitive polling stations, recently released by the organisation, was simply a repetition of the list prepared for the 2008 general elections. He added that at an ECP meeting last week to discuss security for the upcoming polls, the decision had been taken that five security personnel will be present at normal polling stations, seven at those considered sensitive and 10 at the ones considered most sensitive. According to this official, civil armed forces will be deployed in sufficient numbers at the polling stations while 50,000 troops of the Pakistan Army will also perform security duties for the polls as a rapid response force.

Senator Afrasiab Khattak, the central leader of the Awami National Party (ANP) — one of the three parties against whom threats have been made by militants — observed that the old criterion for the categorisation of sensitive polling stations was irrelevant now. “The major threat is from armed militants,” he pointed out. “Rivalry between any two political groups is something secondary.” Mr Khattak was of the view that the ECP must be fully aware of the areas which have fallen victim to pre-poll violence and must amend its old list of sensitive polling stations. “The ECP must take meaningful and serious steps instead of going for cosmetic measures,” he remarked.

Mr Khattak said that the ECP cannot absolve itself from its responsibility of maintaining law and order during election day, as after the announcement of the schedule of the polls, the central and provincial caretaker governments work under its monitoring. “The ECP must play a meaningful supervisory role and assert itself wherever the caretaker governments have left a vacuum,” he emphasised.

Senator Farhatullah Babar of the PPP, also a party that has been threatened, urged the ECP to revisit the criteria for declaring polling stations sensitive, in consultation with the political parties. He said that though the ECP had consulted the political parties on a number of proposed electoral reforms, this issue never came up for discussion. “Now, with general elections just around the corner, this has become all the more important, particularly when the threat from some extremist groups is in the open”, he remarked.

Wasay Jalil of the MQM, the third party in the militants’ cross-hairs, also underscored the need to re-evaluate things on the basis of changed ground realities. He said that contesting candidates were informing the local ECP authorities in their respective areas about the need to declare certain polling stations sensitive. He was of the view that though it might be too late, now, with the polls less than a fortnight ahead, the effective deployment of security at sensitive polling stations would help prevent violence.

Muddassir Rizvi, the chief executive officer of the Free and Fair Elections Network (Fafen), a coalition of over 40 non-governmental organisations working for electoral reform, told Dawn that there appears to be no formal mechanism or criteria for the identification of sensitive polling stations. He was of the view that those constituencies where election candidates are facing open threats should be declared sensitive in their entirety.