LAHORE - Punjab’s long awaited local bodies elections are at risk of manipulation because the authorities have failed to train and equip key polling staff, senior returning officers have warned.

According to written complaints seen by The Nation and interviews with senior officials, untrained and poorly-equipped staff will slow down polling, create long queues and eventually cause pushing and shoving as people rush to cast their vote – chaotic conditions in which a free and fair election cannot be guaranteed.

The potential for manipulation and interference emerged amid continuing criticism of the Election Commission for its failure to conduct a transparent general election in 2013. The outcry over the claims pushed the PML-N government to the brink when Imran Khan’s PTI supporters laid siege to the capital. The feud between the two parties has taken a murderous turn in recent months with a number of killings of political activists.

Returning officers yesterday said they had alerted the ECP over the threat to the country’s first politically-contested local bodies polls on several occasions but their warnings had been ignored.

“The ECP has not made sufficient arrangements to hold free, fair and transparent elections. ROs have not been provided resources to properly supervise and monitor the election process. Staff has not been given training that will ultimately lead to chaos at polling stations. As there are only two days left to polling, untrained and clueless staff will perform duties at polling stations. It will open the door for manipulation on the polling day”, said one official appointed as a returning officer for eight Union Councils in Lahore.

One returning officer wrote to his superior to complain that Rs20,000 for multi-media training for election staff had not been received and plead “that necessary funds be provided at the latest by 27-10-2015” – four days before polling.

Another reported that his team is understaffed and without the vehicles necessary to visit polling stations.

One Lahore returning officer said his staff had no training or previous experience in election work, there were no cars available for inspections and “no equipment i.e fax machine, computer, internet facility, dak runner, photocopy machine, computer operator, stationary etc, have been made available for the discharge of our duties….It is therefore requested yet again to provide the essential paraphernalia in the form of staff, equipment, transport and funds for the smooth accomplishment for such a mammoth task of national importance.”

Despite these obstacles, he and his staff were working with “devotion, dedication and a missionary zeal,” he said.

Though all the ROs have some staff for their work as government officers they do not have enough to oversee the task of monitoring a keenly contested election.

“None of the officers have sufficient manpower and official vehicles. The ECP has neither given staff nor vehicle for monitoring the polling process. We are not given even the funds for photocopy of electoral rolls and training of polling staff. ECP has just issued instructions for doing the same without allocating the required amount. The ECP has not even bothered to respond to a number of correspondences in this connection”, said one RO.

“Most of the ROs are performing such duties for the first time. They and their AROs (Assistant Returning Officers) and Presiding Officers were given a lecture regarding election procedure. The other polling staff has so far not been given any input regarding their duties. We have been asked to give them training on multimedia but without providing any fund. The ECP has yet to respond to my letter regarding provision of fund for holding training workshop for polling staff”, said one RO who declined to be identified.

One of his colleagues said he had been forced to spend his own money on stationery. “Services of only one clerk and a naib qasid are at my disposal as a local government officer. They are doing election duties in addition to their own jobs. I spent money from own pocket on photocopy of electoral rolls. My official vehicle is also not in working condition. It is difficult for me to monitor the polling process at dozens of polling stations.”

“I have requested ECP several times for provision of vehicle, staff and necessary equipment including fax machine, computer and printer for performing duties as an RO. The ECP has not provided anything even till today. It is difficult to carry out the gigantic task of holding transparent election under these circumstances”, another RO said.