Elections in the mist
The European Union Election Observation Mission (EUEOM) finally revealed its report on the July 25, 2018 general elections in a press conference in Islamabad on October 26, 2018. Dilating on the contents and conclusions of the report, EUEOM chief observer and European Parliament member Michael Gahler said the undue presence of military personnel inside the polling stations limited the civilian ownership of the polls. The military had only been asked to provide security for the distribution of election material but were then allowed to deploy inside as well as outside polling stations by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). The deployment was 370,000 army personnel as compared to 70,000 in 2013. In addition, 450,000 police officers were deployed. The EUEOM report noted that the code of conduct for security personnel issued by the ECP on July 6, 2018 increased the powers and role of the security forces posted inside and outside polling stations, including the provision of a parallel structure to report irregularities if the presiding officer failed to take action. The report adds that while a secure environment for voters, candidates and polling staff is essential, the deployment of a large number of soldiers and their presence inside the polling stations with expanded powers could have resulted in voter intimidation. Various EUEOM interlocutors raised concerns about the role of the military inside polling stations, particularly their interventions during the vote count and transmission of results. In a few cases, the report said, it was the security official rather than the presiding officer who was in charge.
The ECP informed the EUEOM that the decision to deploy the army personnel outside and inside the polling stations was based on requests by the political parties. The latter however informed the EUEOM that they had only agreed to the army being deployed outside. The ECP could not give any reasons why it deviated from its original plan. This issue also needs to be looked at in the context of the report’s finding that the pre-electoral environment was marred by allegations of influence by the military-led establishment on the electoral process and the active role of the judiciary in political affairs, including through its suo motu jurisdiction.
Numerous reports, the EUEOM says, depicted the armed forces and security agencies pulling the strings to persuade candidates of anti-establishment parties to switch their allegiance or run as independents, all of which contributed to the splitting of the votes and influencing the results. Media outlets and journalists suffered undue restrictions on freedom of expression, leading to widespread self-censorship. Several events prior to and during the election campaign pointed to the shrinking space for free speech and genuine pluralism.
The report noted overall a range of state actors taking resolute measures well before the elections to control the public narrative and silence any debate that might challenge the role of the military or promote civilian supremacy. The emergence and acceptance of extremist parties as participants in the election process was cause for serious concern, the report pointed out. In this regard, 925 extremist candidates were included in the final list. Several reports commented on the ECP’s implementation of procedures on candidate nomination and acceptance of these candidates.
The EUEOM pointed out the blurred boundary between the role of the superior courts on the one hand and the ECP on the other in matters related to the electoral process, arguing no election can be called into question except by an election tribunal operating under the auspices of the ECP. Despite this, the courts were petitioned and operated as a de facto parallel system of electoral justice to that of the ECP. The ECP’s voter information and education campaign before the polls proved too little too late. The report recommends amendment of the Elections Act to include voter education at every stage of the process.
Overall the report observed a notable lack of equality of opportunity (i.e. the absence of a level playing field). Influential landowners and extended families, the so-called ‘electables’, were able to generate large political appeal and (ample) financial resources to win (as usual, nothing new there).
The EUEOM had made 50 recommendations for the conduct of the polls. Of these, 38 were reportedly implemented. Now, after the polls and in the light of their observation of the electoral process, the EUEOM has put forward 30 more recommendations to improve the process in future. Of these later 30 recommendations, eight have been prioritised by the mission.
1. Review the Constitution and Election Act to ensure restrictions on candidates are not subject to vague, moral and arbitrary criteria.
2. Revise the Election Act, Election Rules and Codes of Conduct to ensure the ECP’s transparency.
3. To contribute to 2. above, ECP should hold regular meetings with election stakeholders.
4. Guarantee civilian ownership by limiting the presence of the security forces to outside polling stations only.
5. Review the legal framework for the mainstream and social media to ensure compliance with international standards of freedom of expression.
6. Introduce affirmative measures for improved representation of women on general seats.
7. Adopt a unified electoral roll by removing the need for any supplementary voters lists.
8. Establish in law national and international observation ensuring full access, including the media, to all stages of the electoral process.
While these recommendations are offered in the spirit of improving our electoral process, they still constitute a ‘soft’ critique of the flaws in our electoral system in general, and the 2018 elections in particular. The underlining of the presence of military personnel, ostensibly on security duty, inside and outside polling stations resurrects and confirms the reservations expressed just after the polls by opposition political parties and objective commentators regarding the elections being fair, free and transparent. Although the EUEOM report found no evidence of polling staff being turned out by uniformed personnel, they did not comment on the video evidence (admittedly scanty but telling) on the social media showing polling staff sitting to one side and soldiers counting votes. The casting of votes seemed on the whole fine, minor flaws notwithstanding. However, once the Result Transmission System (RTS) ‘broke down’, there was no telling what went on in the manual counting.
This is not a minor issue, since the theory has been doing the rounds after the polls that this military ‘intervention’ in select constituencies was meant to engineer a result to the liking of the establishment. If so, the authors of this plan should realize that these revelations challenge the legitimacy of the PTI-led coalition government. It is a weak coalition because, alleged gerrymandering notwithstanding, the PTI was left just short of a simple majority. This necessitated the forging of a weak, lopsided coalition government including some smaller parties and the ubiquitous ‘electables’. Such a construct allows for toppling in case of any disagreement between the PTI and the establishment by the simple expedient of withdrawal of support by these latter day ‘allies’ of the PTI.
If the result of the seven decade old struggle for democracy in Pakistan is to end up with manipulated elections to suit one or the other agenda rather than reflect the free and unfettered expression of the people’s will reflected in their choice of elected representatives, it is a sobering moment and thought about how this reversion to ‘controlled’ democracy will play out in the future.