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Poll violence realities

April 08, 2013

PAKISTANIS are concerned about the maintenance of peace during the forthcoming general elections. Suffice it to say, ensuring peaceful elections will be a gigantic challenge for the law enforcement agencies.

Without mammoth public meetings, election campaigns cannot gain momentum. To mobilise the masses political parties are dependent on huge public meetings.

Public meetings, corner meetings, processions, filing of nomination papers and transportation of election material need foolproof security. Election security can be defined as “the process of protecting electoral stakeholders, information, facilities, and events”.

Grim realities from our history have given rise to a bleak scenario. The first major incident was the assassination of Pakistan’s first prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan in 1951. Much later, former prime minister Shaukat Aziz survived an assassination attempt while campaigning in Attock district in July 2004.

Upon her arrival in Pakistan on Oct 18, 2007, the convoy of PPP leader Benazir Bhutto was hit by two explosions; she remained unhurt but more than 140 people lost their lives. Two months later, Ms Bhutto herself was assassinated in Liaquat Bagh, Rawalpindi.

During the last general elections unsuccessful attempts were made on the lives of politicians Aftab Sherpao, Sikandar Sherpao, Amir Muqam and Afrasiab Khattak.

In 1997 during by-elections in Peshawar, the only son of Ghulam Ahmed Bilour was shot dead. Last year after returning from a corner meeting Bashir Bilour was assassinated in a suicide bombing. Between 2008 and 2012 abortive attempts were made on the lives of Maulana Fazlur Rehman, the late Qazi Hussain Ahmed, Asfandyar Wali and Amir Haider Hoti.

Elsewhere in South Asia there is a history of violence during the electoral process. On May 21, 1991 during an election rally Indias former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by a suicide bomber. In 1999, former Sri Lankan president Chandrika Kumaratunga was injured in a powerful bomb explosion at an election rally in Colombo.

Given such examples, it is imperative that a proactive approach be adopted by the law enforcement agencies. In the past, issues of transparency and credibility dominated the elections but now everyone asks how elections will be held in such a hostile situation. The prevention of pre-poll violence will be a significant factor in motivating people to cast their votes.

Traditionally, in certain parts of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa elders, religious groups and local political parties bar women from exercising their right to vote. Such situations can give rise to clashes between contesting candidates.

Violence during the campaign phase communicates signals of fear and insecurity, hence affecting the turnout on election day. In 2008, a suicide attack on a polling station in Buner killed 35 voters. Therefore providing security cover to 72,000 polling stations needs synchronised efforts.

The probability of violence at polling stations during the tabulation of results is another important issue which needs special attention.

The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) recently published a code of conduct. In case of violations, legal action to the extent of disqualification can be taken. According to the code, the candidates shall communicate the schedules of public meetings three days in advance. To ensure personal security each candidate will be allowed five security guards during the campaign.

Potentially dangerous venues should be identified by carrying out threat assessments. Classification according to the threat level must be made, which will help police chalk out preventive and reactive strategies.

The threat assessment needs to identify the likely victims, perpetrators and motives. Yet threat assessments in Pakistan lack a professional, scientific approach and objectivity. In fact, police should frequently issue security advice to those who are on the hit list of militant organisations. The likely victims of election-related violence can be candidates, voters, security personnel, observers or members of the media.

During campaigns, public meetings of political stalwarts get security cover but often corner meetings and other political activities fail to achieve the required security cover. Therefore, the free flow of communication between political parties and police authorities is imperative.

To ensure the neutrality of police, while transporting ballot papers from election offices to polling stations, ballot papers should not be placed in police vehicles.

Also, during elections conflicts can occur due to identity issues. For example, the presence of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in certain parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Karachi affects the local ethno-political dynamics as the IDPs assert themselves; this can trigger violence during elections.

Soon after the announcement of unofficial results at polling stations supporters opt for violent means to celebrate the victory of their candidate, for example through aerial firing. Such incidents, including the recent indiscriminate aerial firing during a corner meeting in Multan, call the effectiveness of the code of conduct into question.

To educate police officers about their responsibilities during election duties coordinated efforts between the ECP and police are needed. Indeed the poll campaign will be a major test for the law enforcement agencies.

From best international practices one learns that election security is not an isolated venture but rather the collective responsibility of election management bodies. These bodies include law enforcement agencies, political parties, the media, civil society organisations and judicial officials.

Democracy and policing are interlinked. Neutrality of the police ensures the strengthening of democracy while true democracies are instrumental in creating a service-oriented professional police force.

The writer is deputy inspector general of police.