The Election Commision’s failure in the NA-151 by-election

Having observed elections in Pakistan, abroad, I can confidently say the by-election was worst since 2008 elections.

Sarwar Bari July 24, 2012

Despite the Election Commission of Pakistan’s refusal to issue accreditation cards to the Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN), our 42 observers managed to observe polling in 238 of 245 polling stations of NA 151 on July 19. I have observed elections in Pakistan and abroad many times and I can say with confidence that this by-election was the worst since the 2008 general elections.

Never before have I seen this kind of official complacency and the complete impunity with which both candidates and their supporters violated the Commission’s code of conduct. Keeping in view poor implementation of the code in the past, the Supreme Court had empowered the Election Commission (EC) to take preemptive measures to make elections free, fair and transparent. This code came into effect on June 27 after a landmark decision of the Supreme Court on June 9. A new important feature of the code of conduct is the deployment of a three-member monitoring team with one of the members being a professional cameraman to record any documentary evidence of irregularities and so on. In addition to this, each candidate is not to exceed the limit of election expenses of Rs1.5 million, and he or she must open a bank account, maintain it on a day-to-day basis and submit accounts to the District Returning Officer (DRO) every Thursday. Regarding publicity, the sizes of posters, hoardings, banners and leaflets have been fixed. Furthermore, the  hoisting of flags, posters and banners on public property, wall chalkings, or the canvassing or exhibition of any sign, banner or flag designed to encourage the electors to vote has been prohibited within a radius of 400 yards of the polling station. The rule says: “Any violation of the code shall be considered as a corrupt practice under Section 78 of the said Act and will be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years or with fine which may extend to Rs5,000 or with both.”

I was cautiously excited about this and decided to monitor its implementation. In light of the new code, we developed a checklist in order to gauge the EC’s seriousness and approached the DRO. We requested him to share the names of the monitoring team and details of weekly expenses of contesting candidates with the public. The DRO flatly refused. I contacted the EC in Islamabad and was told to send a request through fax, which I did. I received no response. My excitement was over. Yet, it did not deter me from monitoring the process. The Pattan Development Organisation’s team visited the constituency, measured banners and hoardings of the candidates and took photographs of violations and sent them to the EC. Yet, there was no reaction. Polling day came with more shocks.

We met a supporter of the Gilani candidate while he was distributing lunch boxes to the polling staff and police officials. When I asked him how many lunch boxes he delivered at each polling station, he said 60 and each box cost Rs150. This means in total it might have cost the candidate more than Rs2 million to cover 245 polling stations. The presiding officer of this particular station and his staff were happily accepting the boxes. When I asked them was it right to accept favours from a candidate, they said they were hungry and the EC had not provided lunch. Moreover, for the last many days, advertisements of the candidates appeared on the front pages of leading Urdu newspapers and this must have been costly as well. At each of the polling stations that we went to, we saw with our own eyes that at least three wagons were being used to ferry voters. Hiring a wagon for one day and the fuel costs around Rs5,000 — and add all of this up and surely the amount being spent by each candidate must have been in excess of Rs1.5 million.

As for party paraphernalia, each candidate’s party flag and posters were found not only on wagons but also in public places in general, in particular, on the walls of the polling stations (so much for the 400-yard restriction).

We also saw polling agents sitting inside polling booths wearing their party’s and candidate’s badge. In one polling station, PS 64, Gilani’s election sticker was fixed on the ballot box. We took its photograph along with the polling staff. Beside this, at all the polling stations we visited, we saw dozens of party workers canvassing inside the premises. At Polling Station 47, when I asked the presiding officer about this, he said: “What is wrong with this?” And despite the day being a local holiday, construction machinery and labourers were seen in many places of the constituency building roads and laying drains. Local residents said that this work started only a few days back. There is no doubt that both the candidates violated the new code of conduct and it seems that the PPP candidate took the lead in this regard. And in all of this, we also cannot absolve the Election Commission of negligence. If the media and election monitors could see all the brazen violations why couldn’t the EC’s monitoring team, or the DRO? Despite having magisterial powers, no presiding officer was interested in pulling up the violators. Rather, when we brought some of the violations to their notice, they would either ignore us or pretend to be ignorant. Instead of asserting the writ of the law, they provided a level playing field to both candidates — to violate the election code with impunity.

Clearly, both candidates, Shaukat Bosan and Abdul Qadir Gilani, realised that the stakes — a seat in the National Assembly were too high and the risk of being caught red-handed was never going to be very high. For ordinary voters, these rules deny them a chance of milking the rich. They know polling is the only opportunity to gain some benefits for their communities and this means that the higher the degree of violation of the election code by a candidate, the greater the likelihood of his victory.

That said, the taking over of the Election Commission on July 23 by Fakhruddin G Ibrahim has given some hope to the public. The best way to establish the independence and writ of the Commission would be to investigate violations of the new code in the NA 151 by-election.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 25th, 2012.