Bar on women voting, terrorist attack warrant fresh NA-28 by-poll

ISLAMABAD: A suicide bombing and barring women from voting characterized the NA-28 by-election in Buner on December 28, 2008. FAFEN recommended on Election Day that the ECP should stop the polling and re-schedule the by-election because the chaos and fear after the bombing created an environment conducive for electoral fraud and a vote not reflecting the true will of the voters in NA-28. FAFEN observation corroborates this as most of the incidents of ballot box stuffing and booth captures were reported after the terrorist attack.

Instead, the ECP only temporarily suspended polling at 11 stations. In addition, women were completely prevented from voting at more than one-fourth of all polling stations, and other electoral irregularities were widespread. FAFEN reiterates its recommendation to reschedule the NA-28 by-election and urges the ECP to formally reprimand all election officials working at polling stations where women were barred from voting.

By-election for NA-28 in Buner district, NWFP, was held on December 28, 2008. The election was necessitated by the death of Abdul Matin Khan, who won the seat on an Awami National Party (ANP) ticket in February 2008 General Election, when the voter turnout was just over 27 percent. Nine candidates ran in the NA-28 by-election, six fielded or supported by different political parties and three contesting as independents. The total registered voters in the constituency are 290,460.

FAFEN deployed 26 trained, neutral and non-partisan observers to observe the by-election in NA-28. FAFEN observers visited 124 out of a total of 267 polling stations (47 percent of all polling stations in the constituency) and recorded their observations on a standardized, objective checklist based on election rules and regulations, following best practices for election observation. FAFEN discontinued its observation in the constituency following the suicide bombing outside a polling station in the constituency that reportedly left more than 30 people dead and as many injured.

The terrorist attack evoked anger among people of the constituency, prompting selfdefense measures including armed vigils, blocking of routes into the districts and checking of outsiders by local armed men. Fear of more attacks, grief of the dead and the injured, anger at the perpetrators of the attack and distraction of police and other security forces by the terrorist strike had created circumstances that were not fit for polling to continue.

Such situations are ideal for Election Day vote fraud, yielding results that are not reflective of the will of voters. Moreover, the sense of insecurity also inhibits voluntary voting by people and allows certain candidates having more resources to bring out their voters safely, creating an un-level playing field. Voters supporting some candidates or parties may feel more secure than others under these circumstances. After observing an environment of panic and fear in the constituency after the attack, FAFEN issued a press release recommending to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to reschedule the by-election and call for fresh polling. FAFEN also telephoned the ECP headquarters and the Provincial Election Commission to urge this course of action. However, the ECP only suspended polling at 11 polling stations, not explaining the rationale for its decision to stop the voting in less than 5 percent of polling stations when a relatively large part of the constituency was in a psychological trauma.