Whether these general elections were free and fair will be a debate that will etch on for the several months. What cannot be denied, however, are the series of missteps and irregularities created by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) in the last few weeks, which will no doubt influence the veracity of the election.
The latest in line of these misplaced decisions is the latest order of the ECP, issued yesterday, that only women polling agents will be allowed at female polling stations across the country. The order can be said to have one positive impact- it united leaders of the three major political parties in criticism of it. Leaders from Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) have all questioned the timing of the order, with PPP Secretary General Farhatullah Babar saying that such “unnecessary actions” make the electoral process controversial.
It is inconceivable why the ECP announced the order two days before the elections. Assembling and training poll agents is not an overnight task- a political party needs time to plan and draw funds for polling agent training sessions. It would be impossible for parties to find reliable female polling agents at such late notice. Instead of ensuring more female polling agents, this is likely to result in polling centres for women being left without any partisan polling agents. This leaves the polling stations at the mercy of polling staff to manipulate any activities on polling day without oversight-making this order of the ECP just another series of decisions by the commission which compromise the fairness of the elections.
It is not as if there will be no men present in women polling booths. The ECP had previously announced that army personnel, whose job would be to observe the activities, would be posted at the polling stations, thus compromising the “pardah” of female booths anyway, and making the purpose of this order defunct.
It is encouraging to see the ECP take initiative on measures to encourage women participation. Unfortunately, this order, and its eleventh hour application, will neither do much to bring out female voters, nor will it increase representativeness of female polling agents. Instead, it will be just another half-handed move to cause further detriment to the validity of the elections. There were far more female-friendly procedures that the ECP could have adopted than a last-minute ban on male polling agents.