ISLAMABAD - Three major election observer groups — the European Union Election Observation Mission, the Commonwealth Observer Group and Islamabad-based Free and Fair Election Network — have declared the general election transparent by and large terming it an important milestone in strengthening democracy in Pakistan.
“The credibility or legitimacy of the elections is up to the people of Pakistan to decide. We have no interest who had won and who had lost in the elections. What we have observed the polling was held in most transparent manner and results are credible,” EU Election Observation Mission chief Michael Gahler told a news conference here on Friday.
Gahler, however, expressed his deep concerns over the pre-poll environment saying that the campaign for Pakistan’s general election this week featured a “lack of equality” that meant it was not a level playing field for all parties.
“Although there were several legal provisions aimed at ensuring a level playing field, we have concluded that there was a lack of equality and (of) opportunity,” Gahler observed and added that the electoral process of 2018 was negatively affected by the political environment.
The EU observers’ mission generally praised the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) in conducting the elections.
According to a statement, over 120 EU observers oversaw “the opening, voting, counting and tabulation processes at 582 polling stations and tabulation centres in 113 constituencies of Punjab, Sindh, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Islamabad.”
The mission also noted in its preliminary statement that the election day was orderly, “with a preliminary turnout of 52 percent” despite “two deadly attacks on polling stations in Balochistan, and regional clashes between party supporters”.
According to the EU observers’ mission, the legal framework of the Election Act 2017 provides an adequate basis for the conduct of elections in line with international standards.
“The 2017 Elections Act has significantly improved the legal framework particularly by increasing powers for the ECP, introducing greater transparency requirements and measures aimed at enhancing women’s participation.” However, the EU mission observed that the legal framework still contains significant gaps that needed to be addressed.
Praising the ECP for the way the election was conducted, the EU mission observed that the commission was an independent constitutional body with powers and responsibility to conduct elections.
“In the last two years, the ECP’s leadership has undertaken initiatives to improve its capacity, transparency and accountability,” the EU mission said observing that the level of confidence in the institution has increased “due to regular consultations with political parties and civil society organizations.”
The EU mission also observed that the ECP adopted innovative methods to improve women and minority participation in the elections and also tried to introduce “new technologies to improve public outreach.”
The mission admitted that technical aspects of the election process were well-administered and that the ECP did meet operational deadlines.
“However, due to court decisions on the validity of candidate nomination forms, the ECP had to twice extend candidate nomination and scrutiny deadlines,” it noted.
While the mission maintained that the voting was well-conducted, but the counting process was problematic and that staff did not always follow procedure.
“However, as should be the case in a civilian exercise, the mission observed that it was the presiding officers who were in charge” of the process, the EU mission said adding that party agents were present in almost all polling stations it observed.
Commenting on the result transmission system (RTS) introduced by the ECP, the EU election observers’ mission acknowledged that the result submission from polling stations was severely delayed as the tabulation system “encountered serious technical problems.”
The EU mission also noted that returning officers were “not able to receive original result forms and report in a timely manner to the ECP on the progress of results.”
The report mentioned that the ECP explained that “the RTS had not been tested in Pakistan before and thus failed to meet the legal deadline to announce provisional results received via RMS by 2 am.”
“This also resulted in petitions to higher courts relating to candidacy resulted in the delayed printing of ballot papers in some 100 constituencies.”
The mission said that “a number of violent attacks, targeting political parties, party leaders, candidates and election officials, affected the campaign environment.”
Another interesting observation made by the EU mission in its preliminary statement says that security force officials “recorded and transmitted the results, giving the impression of an ongoing parallel tabulation”.
“The elections took place against a background of allegations of interference in the electoral process by the military-led establishment and the role of the judiciary as a political actor,” the mission’s preliminary report said adding that in Pakistan media outlets and journalists “suffer from severe restrictions and curtailment on freedom of expression, which has resulted in extraordinary levels of self-censorship.”
The EU election observers’ mission also observed that “the electorally sensitive timing, as well as the content of decisions of courts investigating or adjudicating on matters related to high-profile Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz candidates, were perceived by several stakeholders as an indication of the politicization of the judiciary.”
“These cases reshaped the political environment ahead of the elections,” the mission clearly stated in their preliminary report, echoing concerns from local observers and journalists regarding the lead-up to the polling process.
According to the EU mission, “Most interlocutors acknowledged a systematic effort to undermine the former ruling party through cases of corruption, contempt of court and terrorist charges against its leaders and candidates.”
Commenting on violations of the Election Act 2017, the mission commented that, “the legal requirement to nominate at least five percent of female candidates was not met by 7.4 percent of parties.”
It also mentioned that unclear provisions on sanctions against violators of these laws, the ECP failed to take any action against the said political parties.
“Women were reportedly restricted from voting in at least eight constituencies in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab upon agreements between local elders and political parties,” EU election observers’ mission observed.
“Of the 3.3 million Pakistanis with disabilities, only 165,927 were registered to vote and only three disabled candidates contested the elections,” the mission said in the statement.
The EU mission also mentioned that although steps were taken to ensure participation of minorities in the electoral process, “the situation of the Ahmadi community remains unchanged — they are still registered on a separate electoral roll, contrary to constitutional provisions on the equality of citizens and against international law.”
Speaking on the occasion, head of the European Parliament’s delegation to the election observation mission, Jean Lambert said that “we appreciate the efforts made by the election commission to aim for greater inclusion in the electoral process particularly through the gender and disabilities working group”.
Jean Lambert urged civilian oversight at polling stations. “We were struck by the significant security presence at polling stations. We do understand the need for security, however elections are an act of civil society and we look forward to a move of greater civilian rather than military oversight, particularly inside the stations where people are casting their ballot,” Lambert said.
Separately, Chairperson of the Commonwealth Observer Group, General Abdulsalami Abubakar said that the people of Pakistan have shown commitment to exercising their right to vote.
He said the ECP did a laudable job in terms of the short timeframe it had to implement its mandate for holding transparent elections on schedule.
Abubakar said that “the mission urges those who have grievances about the process to seek redress through the established channels of dispute resolution”.
He said that the mission observed that the ECP was generally well-prepared for the polls in most areas and that the process, on the whole, was well administered.
To a question, he said the involvement of the military in polling process was not found.
He observed that the counting process was problematic and staffs were not following the procedure in some cases.
To another question, he urged political parties to follow legal channels for resolution of their grievances if any party finds illegality.
Meanwhile, FAFEN has expressed satisfaction on the overall conduct of the general election, declaring it better than that of the 2013 general election.
In a report released, the network said that more than half of registered voters went to the polls on July 25 to mark the second consecutive democratic transition of power, clearing the uncertainties over the future of democracy in the country.