Women disenfranchised in a low turnout election

ISLAMABAD: Thousands of women were disenfranchised as mostly men in PF-75 Lakki Marwat went to the polls on February 10, 2010 which was characterized by low turnout, procedural irregularities, and illegal campaigning and canvassing around polling stations, says preliminary report released by the Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN).

FAFEN will release the detailed polling station-wise observation report on Friday, February 12, 2010.

The seat had fallen vacant due to the death of Pir Khalid Raza Zakori Sharif, who won the seat in June 2008 by-election. Twenty candidates were in the run for PF-75 by-election.

FAFEN trained and deployed 14 observers on Election Day to observe all phases of the voting process at more than 50 of 69 male, female and combined polling stations in the constituency.

Observers spent between 45 and 60 minutes in each polling station to document their observations and findings on a checklist that is based on the provisions of the Representation of the Peoples Act 1976, Conduct of Elections Rules 1977, and instructional handbooks that the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has provided to the election officials.

According to the FAFEN preliminary findings, the voter turnout in the constituency remained between 25 and 30 percent, while the female turnout was negligible. The turnout of women voters remained extremely low even at female polling stations. Many of the combined polling stations observed did not have female booths setup as required by the polling scheme prepared for the constituency by the ECP. FAFEN observers did not notice many women at polling stations that reported any female turnout.

The reasons for low female turnout remain restrictions on women mobility and local agreements among contesting parties and candidates or on barring women from voting. In other locations, local community notables, commonly known as Musheeraan, decided against allowing the women from voting. Some localities where such agreements barred women included Gwarak Saeed Khel, Lawang Khel, Khanzad Khel and Jabo Khel, where women were disallowed to vote.

Election officials at polling stations appear to have colluded with such illegal agreements by not setting up female polling booths at many combined polling stations in violation of the polling scheme. This practice was also observed in PF-83 Swat and NA-21 Mansehra constituencies in by-elections held on January 28, 2010 where ECP officials would abide by local decrees against women voting and fail to make arrangements for women voting.

In addition, FAFEN observers reported instances of irregularities that compromised the quality of the by-election. Some of these key irregularities included presence of unauthorized persons inside polling stations, illegal interference of polling agents with the voting process including accompanying voters behind the secrecy screens, irregular application of indelible ink on voter’s thumb, canvassing outside polling stations, presence of party symbols or materials inside and outside polling stations, polling officials going behind secrecy screens with voters, etc. Some instances of counterfoils not having been marked with voters’ thumb raised questions about the authenticity of vote.

Some other irregularities that may adversely impact quality of the electoral exercise were due to the failure of election officials to follow the instructions contained in their handbooks prepared by the ECP. These include failure of assistant presiding officers to fold ballot papers in the prescribed way before handing them to voters. Proper folding minimizes the chances of ballots being rejected for multiple ink marks.

Similarly, election officials were unclear about the procedures for assisted voting. Many did not know the instructions on who should not accompany disabled voters behind secrecy screen and almost all were unaware about the procedure to prepare the list of disabled voters and their assisting companions.

While generally FAFEN observers had free access to monitor polling process, at one polling station in Tari Khel JUI workers tried to stop FAFEN observers from observation. However, intervention from the Presiding Officer warded off the JUI efforts. FAFEN observers also reported some incidents of violence and brawls between JUI and PTI workers. However, none caused injuries or any other damage.

FAFEN Recommendations

  1. The ECP should probe into the widespread incidents of barring women from voting in the PF-75 by-election. Even if re-polling is not held in the whole constituency, re-polling must be ordered in polling stations where women were barred from voting.
  2. The ECP should reprimand all election officials who failed to enforce the election rules and laws, and especially those working at polling stations where women were not permitted to vote.
  3. The ECP and all provincial, district, and local election officials should administer each by-election with the same vigilance and attention to enforcing the law and procedures as during any general election. The result of any by-election not administered vigilantly should be voided.
  4. To eliminate unauthorized people from being in polling stations:
    1. Presiding Officers should be encouraged and provided adequate protections to use their magisterial powers.
    2. All polling officials must be required to carry their Government Service Cards to prove their identity on Election Day.
    3. Polling officials should ensure that only one polling agent representing each political party – and carrying proper identification from their party – is permitted in each polling booth.
  5. More generally, given the consistent weaknesses in ECP by-election administration, by-elections should be minimized by restricting each candidate in general elections to contesting in only one constituency.


The Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN), a coalition of thirty leading Pakistani civil society organizations, was established in 2006 to observe election processes, educate voters, and advocate for electoral and democratic reform.