The election in Pakistan in July was free and fair, except for procedural issues, says former Chief Election Commissioner of India S.Y. Quraishi, who was in Islamabad and Rawalpindi as a member of the Commonwealth Observer Group.
How was your experience as an international observer of the general election in Pakistan?
It was an interesting and unusual experience. We have been to many countries observing elections, but Pakistan was a different experience as it had a special significance. I went as a member of the Commonwealth Observer Group.. to Islamabad and Rawalpindi.
Serious allegations of rigging and manipulation have been made by political parties in Pakistan, including the PML-N and PPP.
We heard delegations from all major political parties, the media, civil society and human rights groups to know their views. Almost all of them mentioned about pre-poll rigging. They mentioned about three main allegations — that many leaders were being made to shift loyalties through coercive or persuasive measures, the Army was being deployed in a big way and that media freedom was being curtailed.
What were your findings on these allegations?
Shifting loyalties is more a part of political engineering, than rigging. It can be through horse-trading, which happens elsewhere also. As we do not have any proof, we will never know what the exact reasons were. The media delegation complained about indirect pressure, but these were months ahead of polls. While we were there, we found no-holds-barred debates, often brutal criticism of the establishment, which never gave the impression of any censorship. Then self-censorship was alleged. Anyhow, in no way we could have cross-checked the veracity of allegations.
We kept an eye on Army deployments. A total of 3.71 lakh soldiers as against 4.49 lakh policemen were deployed. A major objection was to deployments inside polling stations, given that 40% of soldiers were reservists (retired) and the suspicion was that, now being a civilian, they could be affiliated to political parties. We talked to the Army spokesperson and the Chief Election Commissioner. They said in the 2013 polls, the Army was deployed outside 71,000 booths, but many complaints of rigging inside were received. Therefore, this time, deployments were also made inside polling stations, but under an overall command of the presiding officers.
How did Army personnel deployed at polling stations function under the Election Commission?
The responsibility of soldiers deployed inside polling stations was to report any malpractice to the presiding officer and if he did not act, the matter had to be reported to a superior Army officer, who would convey the same to the respective senior Election Commission official. Therefore, they were always under the Commission. Also, we found that the army also did not have any role in the transmission of results from polling stations, where ballot papers are counted in Pakistan.
Therefore, contrary to the allegations of rigging, the elections were free and fair?
The first person to complain about any malpractice is a polling agent. We all interacted with polling agents and asked if there were any such complaints. There were none … that is the best certification.
I myself interacted with about 200 polling agents at 70 booths. We all compared notes and found the same everywhere.
On allegations of delay in announcing of results, we found that the result transmission system had failed, which was also accepted by the Election Commission there.
They had not pilot-tested the system properly.
Then, there is one Free and Fair Election Network, an association of 50 NGOs, which had deployed 19,000 observers at almost 80% polling stations.
They gave a report stating that the election was absolutely credible and fair. There were lapses, but of procedural nature.
Did the Election Commission authorities in Pakistan express interest in the use of EVMs?
They have been debating it for the past six or seven years. However, a political consensus is essential for that to happen. They were of the view that technology creates problems, given that even the result transmission system — a simple technology — developed a snag, delaying the results.
They use ballot papers, which are counted at polling stations. In our experience, instead of guarding all polling stations for the purpose, they should be transported to specified centres for counting.
What are the recommendations that you have made for improving the electoral process in Pakistan?
Extensive training of election officials is a must to avoid errors. Apart from improving the training modules, we have other suggestions like modifying the form (No.45) for including more candidates while communicating the results. Right now, one page comprises only eight candidates. The counting of postal ballots is done in the end.
In our experience, it should be done at the beginning to avoid any controversy, particularly when victory margins are very small.