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ISLAMABAD: The Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN), while appreciating the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) for conducting largely peaceful and organised by-elections on 20 Punjab Assembly (PA) seats has stressed the need for improving the secrecy of ballots and voters’ choices.

The FAFEN report on the Punjab Assembly polls issued here on Tuesday further observed improvements in polling and result management processes but lax controls over election day canvassing.

It has recommended a conclusive probe into claims of alleged rigging and bias terming it a must for the integrity of elections.

This report is based on the observations received on election day from 638 polling stations from all 20 constituencies obtained by the FAFEN observers through a specially-established call centre as well as through real-time reporting using mobile and web-based applications. The data, once received, was cleaned and where necessary, verified, before being subjected to analysis.

Secrecy screens are provided by the ECP to protect the secrecy of voters. However, at 26 polling booths which is 4.5 per cent of the observed polling booths, these screens were placed in a manner that could have potentially compromised the voters’ secrecy.

Moreover, in 50 (8.9 per cent) of the observed polling stations, the FAFEN observers witnessed unauthorized individuals accompanying voters behind the secrecy screens.

The FAFEN observers reported that voters were carrying voter parchis (chits) displaying the name or symbol of a contesting party or candidate at 21 of the observed polling stations.

These chits that voters usually receive from party camps outside the polling stations are helpful for polling officers to search the voters’ names in the electoral rolls but a chit with the party or candidate’s name on it can compromise the secrecy of the vote. The Supreme Court of Pakistan also banned the provision of such chits to the voters in Pakistan Workers’ Party Case, 2012.

The report said that the ECP had set up 3,130 polling stations comprising 9,565 polling booths for 4,579,898 registered voters. At 935 which is 30 per cent of the total polling stations, the number of registered voters was less than the legally-recommended limit of 1,200 voters.

The polling process remained largely organized and smooth with adequate security arrangements made at the polling stations by the ECP, barring instances of verbal altercations and physical clashes.

According to FAFEN’s observers, voting was conducted in a largely well-organized manner in 577 (96.8 per cent) of the observed polling stations. At only 46 polling stations which is 8.2 per cent of the observed polling stations, observers noted instances of misbehaviour or hostilities erupting between voters/party loyalists.

Smooth processing at the stations was aided by the adequately-trained and equipped election staff which, for the most part, fulfilled the technical requirements of the voting process. The observers recorded that the officers had adequate necessary materials e.g., ballot books, stamps, ink, etc, at almost all the observed polling stations. Moreover, polling booths, which, according to the law, must be placed individually in separate rooms, were thus arranged in 337 (51.7 per cent) of the polling stations.

The security personnel are subject to the presiding officers’ control for maintaining order and peace inside and outside polling stations. During the election day, observers noted the presence of security staff within the walls of 427 (75 per cent) of the observed polling stations. However, their presence did not cause any disturbance, as observers noted that in 410 (97.4 per cent) of the instances the security staff dealt fairly with the voters present inside.

An impressive 49.7 per cent turnout in the by-elections for 20 Punjab Assembly constituencies on July 17, 2022 augurs well for an otherwise struggling democracy in Pakistan. The election day remained largely orderly and well-managed, though reports of isolated incidents of brawls and fights, some of them overplayed by media, particularly the social media, tainted the perception of quality of electoral exercise that, however, culminated with a rare acceptance of defeat by Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PML-N), a gesture that can set the stage for a thriving democracy in the country.

Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) emerged victorious on 15 of the 20 seats, which were vacated after its members were disqualified for voting against their party’s directions in the election for the chief minister (CM) of Punjab. The PTI lost four constituencies to the PML-N candidates and one to an independent candidate.

The party had alleged foul play since the outset of the by-election process and leveled allegations of partisanship against the Election Commission as well as other government institutions. Considering the gravity of these allegations, an independent probe through a specially formed parliamentary committee comprising representatives of all parties may be instituted to ascertain their veracity or otherwise. In addition to contributing to the ongoing electoral reform process, a conclusive probe will strengthen the integrity of future elections.

Among several positives, the by-elections are instructive for the ECP and other stakeholders to pay more attention to curbing the increasingly polarizing tactics and content of party campaigns both before and on the election day not only through traditional mechanisms but also social media.

The by-elections reinforced the need for a proper monitoring and enforcement mechanism to ensure compliance with the Code of Conduct for Parties and Candidates and check any misuse of government resources, and alleged cases of vote-buying and other inducements through tightening the laws, rules, and limits for election expenses. In addition, to improve the election environment, a stricter legal regime must be introduced to discourage unsubstantiated allegations, insinuations, and accusations.

The ECP ensured appreciable improvements in polling, counting, and result-management processes, particularly by making sure that preliminary results of all constituencies, except for the one in Rawalpindi (PP-7), were promptly released. This ensured greater public confidence in the election outcome and also pre-empted the escalation of political temperatures that generally arise as a result of delayed results.

However, the ECP’s enforcement remained weak for curtailing the campaigning and canvassing on election day through electronic media and social media primarily due to inadequate legal and regulatory provisions.

The ECP’s instructions to media on election coverage were largely circumvented, with political leaders from contesting parties canvassing for votes in their media appearances on election day. Instructions for the telecast of polling stations-wise results were also not completely adhered to.

While these practices outside polling stations were also observed, contesting candidates in several constituencies also employed newer ways to woo voters such as rallies and gatherings away from the legally-barred limits around polling stations.

The election law needs to be reinforced to curb such practices in future elections. One way to address such situations is to introduce effective checks on the use of money, which currently are inadequate, cosmetic, and weak. Unless campaign finance rules are tightened, a level playing field will be difficult to be maintained for all candidates and political parties.

The by-elections were among the most hotly contested elections in recent times. The number of contestants dropped from 234 candidates (226 men and eight women) who contested in General Elections (GE) 2018 to 175 candidates (170 men and five women) for the 2022 by-elections.

As many as 4,579,898 voters were registered to vote in these constituencies as compared to 3,842,368 in 2018. Among men voters, the turnout was 53 per cent compared to 60.6 per cent in GE-2018. Women’s turnout was recorded at 45.5 per cent – relatively lower compared to 54 per cent in GE-2018. Over 60,000 more voters cast their votes in these by-elections as compared to their number in 2018, of which more than half (37,271) were women.

The FAFEN deployed 203 election-day observers – 109 men and 94 women – to observe the voting and counting processes at 800 polling stations in all 20 constituencies. The observers were trained on the Elections Act, 2017, and the codes of conduct of the relevant stakeholders to observe the proceedings effectively and independently.

The FAFEN observers were also provided standardized checklists to record their observations. Each observer was assigned four polling stations: in the first polling station, they were tasked to observe the processes preceding the start of polling, at the second and third they observed the voting processes, and at their fourth polling station, in addition to the voting process, they observed the closing and counting processes.

The FAFEN observers were not allowed to ask voters about their voting choices inside or outside polling stations as it is strictly prohibited under the ECP’s Code of Conduct for Observers and as per Section 178 (b) of the Elections Act, 2017.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2022

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