As the unofficial results from the first phase of local government (LG) polls start trickling in, so do the reports of election fraud and rigging. Compared to the LG polls of the past, the voting process has been relatively peaceful, yet there have been enough reported incidents to worry any reasonable electoral body. Isolated stories in the news aside, Fair and Free Election Network (Fafen) on Sunday released a report that has cast serious doubts on the ability of the Election Commission Pakistan (ECP) to manage elections, especially in Punjab. The independent body praised the improvements from previous elections too, but noticed that large portions of the process were “marked with irregularities and illegalities”. Fafen might have skirted around the words ‘corruption’ and ‘rigging’, but it is certain that other stakeholders won’t – and in its wake will come consistent questions over the ability of the ECP and its need for reform.

According to the report for Punjab, preliminary findings suggested that 177 (71 per cent) of the 249 polling stations in 12 districts from where the information could be acquired, various violations of electoral procedures took place. ‘Violations’ encompasses a variety of actions, some quite minor, such as canvassing inside the polling stations, late arrival of the ECP staff, and the presence of candidates at the site. It also encompasses other, more serious problems, such as breach of secrecy of voting, presence of security personnel inside polling stations and incidents of interference by security and election staff in the voting process. These incidents do not necessarily imply that the results of the elections have been changed in any manner, but they do ensure that ECP has very little control over the activities inside polling stations, and if some party wanted, it could tamper with the election at will.

The ECP’s inability to enforce its Code of Conduct is becoming embarrassing; it could not enforce them during the general elections, it could not enforce them in high profile by-elections under the sharp eye of the media, it could not enforce them in district-level polls held in small towns and villages. The time for accountability is near. If the situation fails to improve during the second and third phase of the election, the top management of the electoral body must wave their seats goodbye – and perhaps even be charged under gross negligence and dereliction of duty. Whatever their fate is, the time for ECP and electoral reform is now. Instead of using these incidents to win popularity points among their voters, the losing parties must band together and push for reform in the legislature.