After a four-year movement calling for free and fair elections, one could be forgiven for thinking this year’s most decisive election, of NA 120, would be more transparent than those in the past. It was extremely disappointing for journalists from various organizations, including this one, to observe that this election was curbing freedom of media and by association, transparency and accountability.
Journalists and workers of different observatory bodies have alleged that they were refused entry into polling stations to monitor the election process despite having accreditation cards issued by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). This is not only arbitrary but also illegal and lays credit to the accusations of conspiracy in the political scenario.
What was the reason behind this denial? One could give them the benefit of the doubt that this was a precautionary last minute measure for security but details to this act arouse suspicions. Noticeable is the fact that the Free and Fair Election Network (Fafen) has also reported its observers were also barred from at least 10 percent of the polling stations by security officials. The situation seems even more dubious if one takes in account the report of Fafen on these elections, where observers said they had recorded an average of four violations per polling station, considerably higher than the 2.6 violations per station observed in the NA-260 election held earlier this year. Fafen observers also recorded 11 breaches of voter secrecy and reported that 129 polling booths lacked critical materials.
These reports of inefficiency and violations of election polls only add fuel to the fire that Fafen observers were barred from accessing polling stations to avoid accounts of fraud and ineptitude to the Election Commission of Pakistan and the public. Even if there has been no poll rigging or irregularities, denying access to observers creates room for these stories to an audience and traction. Considering that narratives of grand conspiracy rigging have been advocated by major parties in the recent past, the government should be doing everything in its power to ensure that they do not rise again.
If anything can ensure that a free and fair election is conducted is the input and guarantee of outside unbiased observers. Given the general election is almost upon us, the ECP and the government has very little time to sort these problems out. In the diffused and chaotic general elections, only these observers can provide unbiased accountability – they need to be clearly and unambiguously empowered to do so.