ISLAMABAD: It was targeted by the Taliban, women and minorities were vastly under-represented, and videos of irregularities went viral online – yet Pakistan's 2013 election may still have been its fairest ever.
A much improved voter roll, near-record turnout, and vigilant citizens tweeting alleged rigging all played their part in what former Norwegian PM and election observer Kjell Magne Bondevik called "a credible expression of the will of the people".
Saturday's election saw about 50 million Pakistanis vote, with former prime minister Nawaz Sharif emerging the winner nearly 14 years after he was deposed in a coup.
It represented the first time a civilian government was to hand over power to another, in a country where sporadic attempts at democracy have been interrupted by three coups and four military rulers.
Violence in the run-up to polls and on election day itself killed more than 150 people, according to an AFP tally, as the Taliban set their sights in particular on secular parties that made up the outgoing government.
But despite the threat, nearly 60 per cent of the country's registered 86 million voters went to the polls, moving Pakistani columnist Murtaza Haider to hail his country as "the world's bravest democracy".
"The results of May 11 elections prove once again that if given the opportunity, Pakistani masses would embrace democracy against the religious orthodoxy," he wrote in Dawn newspaper.
The process was far from perfect. Eleven million fewer women voted than men, with militant threats and social conservatism excluding them altogether in parts of the northwest and tribal areas, including the Taliban stronghold of North Waziristan.
Yet overall women's participation was higher than ever, particularly in urban areas, and almost three times as many women ran for office as in 2008.
"The main thing was serious interest in the election and we have a very heavy participation by women everywhere. So I think this was a good election," said IA Rehman, a veteran human rights activist.
Some of the credit goes to Pakistan's database authority, which oversaw an increase in the registration of women from 50 per cent during the last polls to 86 per cent by adding all adults with an ID card to the voter roll.
The agency culled the dead from the electoral roll, and clamped down on ID card fraud that resulted in some people voting dozens of times in the last election.
It put in place measures that allowed polling stations to access would-be voters' photographs and even check thumb impressions against the national database in cases of suspected fraud.
The agency also allowed voters to SMS their ID card number to instantly find which polling station they should use – a serviced accessed 55 million times.
"Technology has strengthened democracy in Pakistan, enhanced turnout, eroded corruption and enhanced transparency," Tariq Malik, chairman of the National Database Registration Authority, told AFP.
But he warned that technology can only do so much and poll officials remained susceptible to corruption.
As in previous elections, allegations of fraud were made around the country, with particular focus on claims by Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in Karachi and Lahore.
Activists posted pictures on Twitter of ballot papers thrown out on the street, and videos of alleged voter intimidation were broadcast on TV and went viral on social media.
But the attention these allegations received could have been instrumental in the ordering of a re-poll in 43 polling stations in Karachi, which was lauded by a European Union observers' mission.
"People are better informed and don't only rely on officials giving them news. Smart phones were a weapon for everyone, as people put up pictures in real time," said Qurratulain Zaman, director of NGO BytesForAll which live-tweeted alleged rigging using the handle @pakvotes.
There is still a long way to go.
More than 200,000 people from the persecuted Ahmadi community boycotted the election in protest at having to vote as minorities and not Muslims. And turnout was very low in restive Balochistan province.
But Rehman said there was much to take heart from.
"The systematic disruption of the electoral process did not happen as it used to in the past," he said.
"The way people turned out they displayed their commitment to democracy, their faith in democracy and electoral politics.
"There was such a push by religious parties who kept saying, 'Don't vote don't go to the vote.' The people ignored all these things and took part."
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Rule by military junta has failed Pakistan, and fair elections too turned out to be a pipedream, so what are the remaining options ?
@Shah (Berlin): "Yeah fairest election with an turnout of 250% in Polling stations…."
FAFEN has admitted its numbers were wrong and based on citizen journalists who may have transposed numbers or erred in data entry.
Seriously.... you insulting our sanity or our intellect by posting such lousy and misguiding articles?
One more step will ensure further transparency in constituencies where there is suspicion of any foul play. There should be web cameras fitted to document each voter ballot being casted into the ballot. This will also help time the process to determine if polling is taking too slowly or too hurriedly.
Technology surpassed, intentions failed....outcome...dharna dharna and bus dharna....
Is this some sort of JOKE.
Where there is a will there is a way!
Really, last time I checked there were several polling stations where votes were above 100 of enrollment.
What technology is the writer talking about? With the advancement of technology, I feel that this election was held in the prehistoric age. The entire country was pumped up for this election thanks to PPP. I say PPP because they did such a bad job, it showed people that if they do not vote, they will get the same medicine once again. But technology was not even explored even after a crazy budget was sanctioned to the ECP. No cameras inside the polling, no fingerprint scanners, no electronic recording, no swipe facility, no double check, same paper and ink and stamp. No verification modules, no nothing. They could have issued a credit card type card to all voters via Nadra for just voting. The card could be used on machines like ATMS to register voting and do auto counting, the machine could be linked to the internet to provide instant results, each booth could have multiple machines, cameras could have been there from Kingdom come. This was a formula made just for rigging and not having fair elections.
It would have been even fairer if E-voting had been utilized. For starters there wouldn't be any ballot papers to tear or any ballot boxes to break. The count would be accurate and media couldn't manipulate the results. Thugs couldn't break anything to add or subtract ballot papers. People wouldn't have to donate their CNICs because without thumb print verification it wouldn't work anyway. Coercion could be stopped and the right to vote couldn't be hijacked.
The real question is when ECP knew about all of this, why didn't it take any steps to go for E-Voting? Complicit?
@Sonya: Technology can't solve the problem when the people controlling the machines are corrupt. In computing we call this Garbage In Garbage Out (GIGO).
Also electronic voting is harder than it sounds. Read about how badly it performed in the US presidential elections of 2000.
O come on.. This is biggest joke of the history that Technology helps.. ha go and check software companies and they will show you how fantastic system they developed but no body interested because it will stop powerful landlords and status qua parties to come into power.
@Tahir Ali: That's a very very valid suggestion.
@abdussamad: Everything which is hailed in the western media is not conspiracy my friend...
those 50 million people turned out to vote for pti; no one would've bothered for pml-n, ppp or the like.
We had more than 100% voter turn out in every polling station! YAY US!! YAY PAKISTAN!! YAY!!!!
We made history with more than 100% turn out at every polling station!! YAY PAKISTAN!! YAYYYYY!!
Yeah fairest election with an turnout of 250% in Polling stations....
if we entered a unique serial no no ballot paper then it is so difficult to pool another no like this all over pakistan. and with thumb impression we can easily catch a illegal vote.
fair elections what a joke
CEC should request NADRA to cross match the CNIC and thumb print of ballot counter foil. All bogus votes casted would be caught.Any person who has casted multiple votes with same thumb print should be arrested and punished according to law. Give a margin of error of 2% in polling station due to incomplete/not clear thumb print and ignore this.
NADRA, a government's own organization presented a fool proof voting system to ECP (a technology ignorant organ) for the overseas voters - and have offered to produce an electronic voting system in a short period of time - why the offer was not accepted is un-understandable - the rigging outside the technological processes have made the election-2013 as highly controversial. Electoral good governance was not ensured by design.
Astaqfirullah ... the worst ever election many have witnessed in pakistan and media keeps on singing the praises ... free and fair .. free and fair for whom ? not for the public atleast
PML-N's victory was generally hailed as a positive development in the western media. Looks like they got their favourites in power. Another puppet government for Pakistan!