ISLAMABAD: The European Union Election Observation Mission (EU EOM) to Pakistan on Friday expressed satisfaction over overall conduct of the general elections, saying efforts of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) were impressive and appreciable.
The Observation Mission, led by its Chief Observer, Michael Gahler, while addressing a news conference said the EU observers visited as many as 582 polling stations in 113 constituencies and he had also personally visited many polling stations.
“We observed there was an improvement as compared to the previous election held in 2013.”
He; however, point out that although “there were several legal provisions aimed at ensuring a level-playing field, there was a lack of equality of opportunity” provided to the contesting parties.
The election day was orderly with a preliminary turnout of 52 per cent despite two deadly attacks on polling stations in Balochistan, and regional clashes between party supporters, he said.
EU observers noted the presence of security personnel inside and outside the polling stations did not interfere in the electoral process.
“At times, they checked voter ID cards and directed voters to the right queue.”
Gahler said voting was assessed as well-conducted and transparent.
However, counting was sometimes problematic, with staff not always following procedures and difficulties were observed in completing the results’ forms.
The Result Transmission System (RTS) encountered technical problems in submission of results from polling stations and; thus, returning officers were not able to receive original result forms and report in a timely manner to the ECP on the progress of results, the noted.
The ECP explained that the RTS had not been tested in Pakistan before.
Several interlocutors pointed out that the campaign was dominated by candidates with large political appeal and financial means, the so-called ‘electables’, 34 smaller parties complained they could not keep pace with large national parties, especially regarding expensive political advertising, even if the law sought to curtail unfair advantages.
Positively, the EU EOM praised work of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). It complimented the ECP on the many initiatives that it had taken to improve accountability and transparency, including the participation of women and minorities.
The mission said that levels of confidence in the ECP had undoubtedly increased due to regular consultations with political parties and civil society organisations.
On July 25, over 120 EU observers observed the opening, voting, counting and tabulation processes at 582 polling stations and tabulation centres in 113 constituencies in Punjab, Sindh, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Islamabad.
In the polling stations observed, security personnel were present inside and outside all polling stations.
However, as should be the case in a civilian exercise, the mission observed that it was the presiding officers who were in charge.
The head of the European Parliament’s delegation to the election observation mission, Jean Lambert MEP (United Kingdom), fully endorsed the preliminary statement of the EU EOM.
She then addressed a number of issues relating to the election day, including access to polling stations for voters with disabilities, and the participation of women in the elections.
“We appreciate the efforts made by the Election Commission to aim for greater inclusion in the electoral process, particularly through the Gender and Disabilities Working Group,” said Ms Lambert.
“We look forward to further progress. After all, the five per cent quota for women candidates is just a starting point, and more in winnable seats would be welcome.”
EU observers are continuing their observation in districts across the country. The mission will observe tabulation, the official announcement of results, as well as any complaints and appeals.
On the negative side, despite improvement in the legal framework, the electoral process was negatively affected by curbs on the media and unequal campaign opportunities, European Union’s observed.
According to the preliminary, positive changes on the legal side were overshadowed by restrictions on freedom of expression.
The report declared the elections ‘not as good as 2013’.
Members of the mission termed the election an important milepost and stated that although two consecutive civilian governments had completed their full terms, the run-up to the election was marred by restrictions and allegations of interference of the security establishment in the electoral process.
The report described the role of judiciary as ‘a political actor’.
“Media outlets and journalists suffer from severe restrictions and curtailment on freedom of expression, which has resulted in extraordinary level of self-censorship,” the observation mission’s initial report stated.
Unlike the previous EU missions to Pakistan in 2002, 2008 and 2013 elections, this time the deployment of the observers was almost a month late.
Assessing the pre-poll environment, the mission observed that both the content and timing of some court decisions against PML-N leaders and candidates were perceived by several stakeholders ‘as an indication of the politicization of the judiciary’.
“Most interlocutors acknowledged a systematic effort to undermine the former ruling party through cases of corruption, contempt of court and terrorist charges against its leaders and candidates,” the report said.
The mission also noted restrictions on people’s freedom to assembly and gathering in some areas, and the lack of equal opportunities where parties and individuals with large political appeal and financial means dominated the campaign and advertising at the expense of smaller parties.
The mission also voiced concerns at the emergence of some parties with affiliations either to terrorist groups or individuals linked with terrorist groups.
“Final candidate list included 925 individuals with extremist links, and three candidates were on the UN sanctions list.”
Gahler said it was up to the ECP to decide whether or not a candidate or a party could contest or not, but political parties and the civil society should discuss this issue.
Commonwealth observers said presiding officers in some cases did not follow the rules regarding providing signed copies of results (Form 45) to representatives of candidates, adding that there was scope for improving the procedures for counting the ballots and making it more transparent.
They said though some stakeholders has expressed concern at deployment of army men inside the polling stations, they concluded: “We did not form the impression that the security presence deterred the electoral process.”
Their final report will be issued later.