ECP’s Weak Enforcement Marks LG Phase 2 Elections

FAFEN observers face tough time in Badin, Dadu, Nausheroferoz and Attock

ISLAMABAD, November 20, 2015: The second phase of the Local Government elections in 26 districts of Punjab and Sindh have been characterized by illegalities and irregularities amidst weak enforcement and monitoring by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) or its designated officials. The party-based election, however, witnessed an impressive turnout and remained largely peaceful despite fear of violence in some districts, says a press statement issued on Friday.

The last minute cancellation of election in 81 local councils of eight districts of Sindh by ECP in pursuance of the orders of Sindh High Court (SHC) had already dampened the election environment, with one major political party in the province dubbing the decision as ‘controversial’. The ECP had to postpone the elections on the eve of polling day over “irregular delimitation” of these areas after Supreme Court abstained from granting a stay against the orders of SHC, observing Election Commission is a constitutional institution having powers to make its own decisions.

The second phase of the Local Government election was originally scheduled to be held in 27 districts on November 19, 2015 but the ECP had to postpone the exercise in Sanghar due to heightened political temperatures which had rung security alarm bells. Similar situation was also brewing in Badin, but the ECP gave a go-ahead to polling in the district where infighting between PPP factions had been showing signs of turning violent on the Election Day. Keeping in view the security environment during the first phase of election which was held on October 31, 2015 and particularly the killing of 11 people in Khairpur, the ECP sought the assistance of Pakistan Rangers and Army to provide Election Day security. The decision worked well as the Election Day largely remained peaceful with only sporadic incidents of brawls, scuffles and frays among political workers reported from polling stations in various districts.

As for facilitation of neutral observers to monitor the electoral activity during the second phase of LG election, ECP did streamline the process of accreditation of independent observers in consultation with the civil society organizations a few days before the election, however, the implementation remained weak. District Returning Officers (DRO) in Badin, Dadu, Nausheroferoz and Attock either completely or partially denied the ECP’s explicit instructions for the accreditation of FAFEN observers. The official assisting the DRO in Dadu kept FAFEN member organization’s representative in illegal custody and threatened him with a criminal case if he persisted to seek the required number of accreditation cards. The administrative aspects of election also remained weak, symptomatic of a lax grip of ECP on the officials who are deployed on election duty.

FAFEN observers reported 7,887 irregularities and illegalities of electoral laws and rules from 2,108 polling stations in the two provinces from where information could be acquired on the Election Day, reinforcing the need for greater powers and authority required by ECP to hold the erring officials accountable. On average, at least four violations were reported from each polling station from where information was received. As many as 2,181 violations were reported from 527 polling stations in Sindh at an average of four per polling station while 5,706 violations were reported from 1,581 polling stations in Punjab at a similar average. Ironically, presiding officers at less than a third (30.5%) of the observed polling stations reported that any representative of ECP or the Returning Officer had visited through the day for monitoring the quality of the polling process.

Among persistent and glaring illegalities were campaigning and canvassing by political parties and candidates outside polling stations in complete disregard of the legal provision that bars them from such activity within a 200 meters radius of a polling place. Observers reported this illegal activity from outside around 30 percent of polling stations in the presence of security forces in both provinces. In Sindh, this violation was reported from 31.5 percent of the observed polling station, while observers in Punjab reported this violation from 29 percent of observed polling stations. Equally alarming has been the excessive use of money as candidates or their workers were seen bringing voters on paid transportation to around 41.4 percent of polling stations in Sindh and 46 percent polling stations in Punjab.

The constitutional right to secret ballot was reported to have been compromised at around one percent of polling stations in both Sindh and Punjab, where polling agents, polling officials and other unauthorized persons were observed to be accompanying voters behind secrecy screens.

Voters were reported to have been given slip of their serial number on electoral rolls by the candidates or party workers at nearly 26.2 percent of the polling stations in Sindh and 25 percent in Punjab, in violation of the ECP’s Code of Conduct. Incidents of polling agents and polling staff stamping ballot papers on behalf of voters were reported from 3.6 percent of the polling stations observed in Sindh and eight percent in Punjab. Observers reported presence of unauthorized persons inside more than one-fifth of the observed polling stations in Sindh and 17 percent in Punjab. These unauthorized persons included government officials, bodyguards of candidates, local influential and political leaders.

Many of the irregularities and illegalities at polling stations are generally attributed to the lack of training of the seconded staff performing election duty. However, ECP had arranged adequate training of presiding officers performing duty in second phase of LG election. Almost 96 percent of presiding officers in Punjab and 93 percent in Sindh told observers they had attended the ECP training. However, the training did not result into major improvement in the voter processing as defined by the law. At a quarter of Punjab and one fifth of Sindh’s observed polling stations (25% and 19%, respectively), polling staff was reported to not have been filling out the counterfoils when issuing the ballot papers to voters. At 4 percent of the total observed polling stations in Sindh, assistant presiding officers were observed not signing and stamping the back of the ballot papers issued to voters in contravention of the defined rules. In Punjab, however, only one percent observed polling stations reported this irregularity.

The election staff performing duty at many polling stations lacked some crucial documents necessary for the smooth voting operations. At 15.6 percent of polling stations observed in Sindh, presiding officers said they did not have the polling scheme, while the a similar percentage of presiding officers reported missing polling schemes in Punjab as well. Unavailability of polling schemes at polling stations causes unnecessary difficulties for both the voters and the staff in ascertaining at which polling station a voter had to go to poll his or her vote. At more than 15 percent of the observed polling stations in Sindh, one or more voters were turned away because their name was not on the electoral roll. This percentage was even higher in Punjab where FAFEN observers reported that one or more voters were turned away from 20 percent of polling stations because their name was not on the electoral roll.

Although only one polling station in Paikhel area of Mianwali reported bar on women voting, there were some factors that could have potentially undermined the participation of women voters in voting process in both provinces. The deployment of male staff at 35 percent of the observed female polling stations in Sindh and presence of unauthorized men at 6.5 percent of the observed female polling stations might just have kept many women away in a culture of gender segregation. These factors, though lower in terms of proportion, were observed in Punjab as well where 12 percent polling stations each reported deployment of male staff for processing women voting and presence of unauthorized men inside female polling stations.

The purpose of this preliminary report is to highlight weaknesses of the electoral processes and practices indicated by FAFEN observation on the Election Day in an effort to improve election management for the third phase of the local government election due on December 5, 2015. A detailed report on the quality of the local government election will be released after the completion of the third phase. Findings included in this report are preliminary, and therefore, must not be generalized beyond their scope. At best, they are indicative of persistent electoral illegalities and irregularities that are witnessed in all elections, reflecting ECP’s weak capacity to enforce election laws and Code of Conduct for Political Parties and Contesting Candidates.

FAFEN has proposed the following recommendations as prerequisites for improving the Election Day processes for the last phase of the Local Government elections:

  1. ECP should make polling schemes public as soon as possible for all districts where elections are going to be held, along with details of the type of polling stations, the number of male and female booths to be set up at each polling station, along with the number of voters allocated to each booth. Polling schemes must be made available on the ECP website.
  2. No change in the polling scheme should be allowed after it is gazetted unless specifically approved by the Election Commission. Such changes should be posted on the ECP website, which is one of the top 1,000 websites in Pakistan that citizens access to acquire information.
  3. ECP should reconcile polling schemes with the electoral rolls, as there have been reports of discrepancies in electoral rolls provided at the polling stations compared to the finalized polling schemes.
  4. ECP should provide details of contesting candidates for all seats to be directly elected, including disaggregation by gender.
  5. ECP should provide details of all seats where candidates are returned unopposed.
  6. The process of accreditation of observers must be streamlined. The commitment of ECP Secretariat to enhance electoral transparency must be translated through clear instructions to District Returning Officers, Returning Officers, Presiding Officers, and Security officials to ensure that they facilitate election observation instead of restricting it.
  7. ECP should establish a high-level committee comprising senior officials to investigate allegations of irregularities and illegalities and address them on priority basis in order to improve ECP’s public image and credibility as the neutral custodian of the electoral processes.
  8. District Election Commissioners should be empowered to facilitate independent monitoring of the Election Day management through teams of respected and honest individuals who will furnish independent reports to the Election Commission on the quality of electoral processes.
  9. ECP must enforce laws to prevent political parties and candidates from establishing camps around polling stations on the Election Day. Such presence of political workers around polling stations is one of the major causes of Election Day voter intimidation and violence.
  10. Security forces should receive clear instructions to stay outside the polling stations unless they are asked by the Presiding Officers to enter. Their presence inside the polling stations and polling booths is intimidating to voters and compromises the authority of Presiding Officers.
  11. To help ensure that the election result management process is transparent, polling agents and neutral observers must be allowed to observe the vote count at the polling stations. In addition, media should be provided access to all venues where polling station results are consolidated.
  12. Specific measures should be taken to create conducive environment for women’s voting such as deployment of female staff in female polling stations and booths, barring all men from such stations and booths and wherever possible deployment of female police.
  13. Reports of barring women from voting in some areas reported by media should be independently investigated by the ECP and elections be declared null and void in those electoral areas if these are proved true.