Bannu By-election Marred by Coercion, Irregularities

ISLAMABAD,Mar 30, 2007:  Coercion, lax enforcement of election laws, massive use of the local government apparatus, bogus ballots from women’s polling booth, and flaws in the electoral lists marred the by-election to the NA-26 seat in Bannu, held on March 29, 2007, according to Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN) observers

FAFEN, a network of 30 leading civil society organizations, was accredited by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to monitor the poll for the National Assembly seat that fell vacant after the demise of Maulana Naseeb Ali Shah, who belonged to MMA. A 17-member FAFEN delegation observed 72 out of a total of 274 polling stations in rural and urban areas of the constituency. The observation was made through all stages of polling – opening of polling stations, voting and counting of votes. In addition to employing standardized observation forms following international standards for domestic monitoring, the delegation interviewed more than 200 voters, election officials, polling agents and political party activists to draw its conclusions.

FAFEN observed the Bannu by-election with an interest in improving the election process in Pakistan, as credible elections are an essential component of credible governance. In a spirit of cooperation towards this goal, FAFEN urges the ECP to take greater responsibility for the preparation and security of polling officials as well as enforcement of all election laws and regulations ahead of the forthcoming general elections. The ECP’s activation of and operational cooperation with law enforcement mechanisms also is crucial. Some of the major findings of the FAFEN election observation delegation in Bannu are as follows:

Coercive Environment

Voting, particularly in rural polling stations, was marred by a coercive environment created, in part, by the supporters of the MMA candidate, Ziyad Durrani, who is also the son of NWFP Chief Minister Akram Durrani. Armed men allegedly supporting the MMA were present inside many observed polling stations, apparently supervising the polling process.  Supporters of   PkMAP’s Dr Habibullah were also seen brandishing weapons inside some polling stations. The two sides came close to clashing at several observed polling stations, but police and area notables helped defuse the tension. On the other hand, police officials were sitting inside most of the observed male and female polling stations instead of manning the gates, as is their mandate. Police presence inside the polling stations added to the coercive environment.

MMA-Taliban Nexus Undermines Freedom of Voting

In some instances observed by FAFEN, the local version of Taliban sympathetic to the MMA took control of the polling stations and ensured nobody could vote for any candidate other than that of MMA. At Polling Station-189 Rehmatullah School Hyderi Mohammadkhel, FAFEN observers were threatened by the local version of Taliban and asked to leave immediately. At this polling station, the female polling staff were also confined in their room. Some people interviewed by FAFEN suggested that the MMA invited the local version of Taliban to polling stations closer to Frontier Regions of the district in order to ensure blanket voting for its candidate. Fear of local Taliban was, however, visible in many polling stations observed even in areas closer to the city.

Support from Nazims Violates Election Laws

In violation of the election laws and the Local Government Ordinance, Union Nazims were seen actively engaged in the election campaign and canvassing for votes for Mr. Durrani. These Nazims were present inside most of the observed polling stations, ensuring that the people voted for the MMA candidate. Another evidence of inappropriate actions by local government officials were pro-Durrani banners and posters plastered all over the city that were allegedly sponsored by Union Council Nazims. This involvement of Nazims allowed Mr. Durrani to use local government resources to his advantage in the by-election. According to one of his opponents, many of the UC Nazims were working on the orders of the District Nazim, also of the MMA.

Bogus Ballots at Women’s Polling Booths

Most women’s polling booths that were observed by FAFEN were empty throughout the day. Witnesses told FAFEN delegations at many observed polling stations that the area multi-party notables had struck agreements on barring women from voting in their areas. At polling stations in Mewakhel and Sikanderkhel, Presiding Officers said that the restriction on female voters had reduced their workload.  However, during the counting of votes, the number of ballots from women’s polling booths appeared to be much higher than the turnout of women voters. Party polling agents and activists opposing the MMA said that Durrani supporters ensured bogus voting at female polling booths by taking advantage of untrained female polling agents, though this information could not be confirmed since in many cases only the MMA had agents in the polling stations. Nevertheless, it is possible, in an area where the interplay of cultural and religious factors restrict female mobility and voice, that female election officials were coerced. A related fact is that female election staff were not invited to the counting of votes.  The ballot boxes from their booths were brought to male booths and counted by male election staff, such as at Polling Station Nos. 82, 92, and others.

Turnout at male polling stations also was low.  FAFEN observers estimate that an average of 250 votes were cast in men’s polling booths. However, the final vote count appeared much higher than the actual turnout of people.

Weak Enforcement of Election Laws

Another serious flaw in the electoral exercise was lax enforcement of election laws by election officials who appeared unwilling to enforce their mandate either because of a lack of capacity or social and cultural pressures that bar them from asserting the law.  This docile attitude of election staff benefits all contesting candidates, but the maximum advantage is drawn by individuals in positions of power.  FAFEN observers reported that there were few restrictions on the movement of unauthorized people inside polling stations. Supporters of all candidates were seen canvassing for votes not only within the 400 yard restricted zone around polling stations, but also within the immediate vicinity of polling stations and inside the stations themselves. The MMA and PkMAP were the most proactive in exploiting this flaw.  Their supporters were engaged in illegal canvassing within all observed polling stations.  Evidence also suggest that election officials in many observed polling stations were sympathetic to Mr. Durrrani, as they allowed his posters and banners and MMA flags inside the polling stations, contrary to the election law and regulations. At one polling station, an Assistant Presiding Officer was seen telling voters to stamp Mr. Durrani’s symbol, the book.  In Polling Station-21 Government Public School No. 5, the Assistant Presiding Officer, in full view of the Presiding Officer, was giving voters ballots that had already been stamped on this same symbol.

Other widespread deviations from the law in observed polling stations included late starting of polling in the morning, disregard of voter secrecy, inadequate arrangements inside polling stations for efficient movement of voters, inconsistent use of indelible ink, the presence of signs and symbols identifiable with political parties in stations, and the failure of polling officials to give all party polling agents a copy of the statement of the count.

Flaw in Electoral Lists

The electoral lists provided by the ECP for the Bannu by-election were the same ones used in the 2002 general elections, but included new entries. Many of the new entries on the lists did not have National Identity Card numbers. However, election officials allowed anybody with valid identity cards to cast their ballots, even if the person’s NIC number was missing from the list. According to some political activists, many of these new entries were those of fake voters. In some polling stations, election staff also complained that they did not get the electoral lists properly photocopied, with either entire pages missing or some of the entries cut out during copying.

FAFEN will make public its final, detailed report and recommendations on April 3, 2007, but is able to conclude in this preliminary report that the by-election in Bannu exposed many flaws in election administration that need to be rectified by the ECP in order to ensure that the forthcoming general election is free, fair and transparent. At the same time the political parties need to restrict themselves to legal campaigning among their constituents, rather than resorting to coercive means to intimidate voters.  All stakeholders need to follow both the letter and the spirit of Pakistan’s election laws and regulations.