Asim Imdad Ali |

Our history of elections has shown recurrent episodes where the importance lies in the hands of the counter instead of the voter. The well-established influence and ability of key-stakeholders in Pakistan to produce positive (musbat) electoral results through the returning officers (ROs) is an open secret. These ROs approve the candidate nominations, manage logistics and prepare the polling scheme. The latter includes selecting polling stations all over the constituency and in some cases even handpicking polling staff. Hence, they are the real levers of the system.

For the purpose, the entire election process including the pre-election, election-day and post-election segments has to exhibit system-wide coherence, consistency and transparency.

Role of political parties in promoting the culture of pre-poll management

Numerous examples of pre-poll management by all parties concerned exist; Bhutto addressing all the Deputy Commissioners (DCs) before the 1977 elections, as in those days, they managed the responsibilities of the ROs. Positive results during the Zia referendum – where 99% voted in favour of his Islamization policy and for him to continue as President – were also the work of over-zealous officers. The Asghar Khan case is a well-documented saga of pre-poll management seen in the 1990 elections, where the establishment effectively manipulated the ROs to deliver the desired vote-count in this case to elect PM Nawaz. Musharraf’s landslide victory at the 2002 referendum was, yet again, a palpable manifestation of the indiscriminate use of the same ROs to secure the intended results, in this case a clear 98% majority voted for him to continue as President!

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The three victories of (PPP) Pakistan Peoples Party (1988, 1993 and 2008) and each of PML(N)’s ‘mandates’ were also achieved by similar pre-poll dealings, followed by party preference signaling by key stakeholders: 1990 election (Asghar Khan case), or 1997 elections (President Leghari sacking Benazir that was followed by preference signalling by the establishment), or the 2013 elections (role of Kiyani post-Memogate and the associated preference signaling by the then Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhury who addressed the ROs).

Hence, the old system of ‘man on the horseback’ was changed to ‘anyone behind the wheel’, taking away individual autonomy from the voters in a very organized fashion. Once the pre-poll macro-understanding was reached among the key stakeholders, the micro-management of the electoral process was engineered through the ROs.

The reality is that the polling staff, being part of the state machinery, always understand the preference signalling by the key stakeholders, exactly know what outcome are considered positive (musbat) at any point in time and fall in line either through voluntary servility or through coercive intimidation.

Typically, the district returning officer sends a request to different departments in the district to provide lists of staff.

The saga of the ‘35 punctures’ during the 2013 election produced a long-drawn legal battle which went up to the apex court. During the proceedings before the apex Commission, the allegations of organized rigging could not be proved by PTI lawyers. In a nutshell, the Commission found that ‘based on the evidence presented before the commission it cannot be said that on an overall basis the elections were not a true and fair reflection of the mandate given by the electorate, despite some lapses by the Election Commission of Pakistan’. The commission believes that the PTI was not entirely unjustified in requesting the establishment of a body to inquire into its suspicions and allegations regarding the 2013 general elections.

No other finding was expected from the August Commission. None of the parties before the Commission had the will and tenacity to present evidence about the actual role of the Establishment in managing 2013 elections results. It is only now that PTI, for the first time, has pointed at pre-poll preference signalling by the key stakeholders in favour of PML(N) during the 2013 elections. No averment on this account was made by the PTI lawyers before the Commission. The Commission, being a creature of law, was bound by the evidence presented before it and accordingly discredited the allegation of ’35 punctures’ during the 2013 elections.

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Pre-poll management in future elections

With this historical background and especially after the 2018 Senate election, it is fair to say that this pattern of overt and covert manipulation may, at best, only marginally change in the upcoming elections. Hence, those who count the votes will continue to matter far more than those who cast the votes. To further aggravate the situation, the institutional capacity of the civil administration, over the years, has eroded significantly. Now, instead of functioning as neutral and impartial state machinery at the district level, it has reduced itself to a state of servitude of the masters of the time.

There is already unequivocal and widespread evidence of bias and partisanship among local district officers. That is why, with each election, more and more functions of the electoral process (like supervising the printing of ballot papers, their transportation to polling stations, and law and order presence on Election Day, et al) are being handed over to para-military and military forces. Ironically, this further re-enforces the ability of the Establishment to manage positive (musbat) results: the camel is welcomed into the tent.

1. Why you need electables

It appears that the focus in the upcoming 2018 elections will remain on pre-poll management steering towards ‘positive’ outcome, through behind the scene deals and understandings. One of the keys to pre-poll management is to secure the allegiance of maximum number of electables and then shepherd them into the preferred political party. The electables are the entrenched political elite of the district, with deep pockets and well-established connectivity with local officials-cum-polling staff.

To expect the Election Commission to monitor expenses of thousands of candidates, with more than 80 million registered voters, is clearly a pipe dream.

This creates an incentive, even for political parties with considerable national appeal and weight, like PTI, to maximize their collection of such electables – ironically to the abnegation of their much-trumpeted claims of being ‘change-agents’. The political parties are accordingly striving to seek the loyalty of as many electables as possible knowing fully well that in due course of time the task of micro-management of elections at the constituency level will be delegated to this district elite and the ROs. In the meantime, the national political elite hypocritically keep on harping the new contrived slogan of ‘respect-the-vote’.

Electables, on their part, are making choices according to their own reading of party preference signalling by key stakeholders and their own understanding of macro-decisions being crafted for the post-election set-up. Heaven forbid that these party choices of electables are ever based on principles or ideology or public interest. Their only consideration for choice is to be inside the winning camp at the end of

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election. Hence, electables are experts at reading party preference signalling and have accurate pulse reading of post-election governance arrangements.

2. How the thana-patwari patronage system works for you

In the pre-poll stage, delimitation of constituencies is a key process. Gerrymandering is a common practice across the globe and we are not unique in this regard. Our system, however, is so cumbersome that it favours the electables, who can afford expensive lawyers and have easy access to authorities that provide data and maps; new-comers cannot understand, never mind, manage this complex process.

On Election Day, the key task of the electables is to manage the presiding officers in each polling station. It is practically impossible to depute district presiding officers and polling staff across the country. Doing that would be a logistical nightmare, as more than 75,000 presiding officers and more than 700,000 polling staff are deputed to conduct elections.

Hence, these presiding officers and their election staff are from the same district. Typically, the district returning officer sends a request to different departments in the district to provide lists of staff. These lists form the basis for selecting election staff which are to be deputed at each polling station.

This burdensome process creates incentives to manage the polling staff, as there is little chance that the dispute resolution process will later upset the results notified on the Election Day.

Here, again, the electables clearly have the upper hand and the dominant position. These local officials have long-term relations with the electables. Both sides (the electables and the polling staff) have an incentive to cultivate this mutually beneficial relationship of reciprocal support. The district elite invests in their relationships with local staff, through managing postings, transfers, inquiries, housing, disciplinary proceedings, and promotions of these officials during the pre-election years.

This thana-patwari patronage system is a relationship of quid pro quo. Election Day is pay-back time for the local staff for the long-term investments made by the district elite. In case they do not fall in line, the stick of local police and administration is also deployed to intimidate and harass these officials.

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There are many legal provisions aimed at reducing the influence of this thana-patwari patronage system. The law provides numerous powers to candidates to ensure that the election staff at the polling stations remain transparent. The election agents or polling agents, of each candidate, are allowed by law to remain within the polling booths and to supervise both the polling and the counting process. Section 90 of the Elections Act, 2017 states: ‘The Presiding Officer shall give such of the contesting candidates, election agents, polling agents and authorized observers as may be present reasonable facility of observing the count and give them such information with respect to the count as can be given consistent with the orderly conduct of the count and the discharge of his duties in connection with the count.’

The law also states that the presiding officer must supply the final vote-count of each polling station to all the polling agents of each candidate on the Election Day. Section 90 of the said Act also states: ‘The Presiding Officer shall give a copy each of the Result of the Count and the Ballot Paper Account signed, stamped and thumb marked by him and the senior most Assistant Presiding Officer to such of the candidates, their election agents or polling agents as may be present and obtain a receipt for such copy and if any such person refuses to sign it, the Presiding Officer shall record a note to that effect.’ Find some pictures here for last election of rigged vote count papers.

The decisive factor, whether these laws are observed by those counting the votes, depends on the capacity of the election machinery of each political party. Again, the electables have a huge edge here; they are able to mobilize highly robust teams of polling agents, due to their ability to dish out more promises of favours to come. The new parties or the new candidates usually have no teams of parallel expertise and experience to deploy at each polling station, and those that do turn up are intimated and harassed by deploying the stick of local police and administration. Hence, even on Election Day, the age-old problem of who will count the votes becomes the decisive factor.

3. Money, money, money- It’s a rich man’s world

The other major advantage of going into elections with the maximum number of electables is to deploy the deep pockets of this entrenched elite in each district, where funding is sufficiently augmented aka Asghar Khan case. According to Section 132 of the Election Act 2017, ‘The election expenses of a contesting candidate shall not exceed— (a) one million and five hundred thousand rupees for election to a seat in the Senate; (b) four million rupees for election to a seat in the National Assembly; and (c) two million rupees for election to a seat in a Provincial Assembly.’

To further aggravate the situation, the institutional capacity of the civil administration, over the years, has eroded significantly.

It is practically impossible for election officers to monitor the expenses of each candidate in each constituency. During the recent Senate elections, the Commission could not even monitor the expenses incurred by a few candidates with an electorate of less than 800 voters. To expect the Election Commission to monitor expenses of thousands of candidates, with more than 80 million registered voters, is clearly a pipe dream.

The system of vote-for-money executed on the election day through locality-level leaders is also deeply rooted in the national political fabric. Again, the recent Senate election show that even the elected representatives, with high fiduciary duties, did little to resist the temptation of vote-for-money. And we may recall that none of these members of the legislature (electorate of Senate) live anywhere even close to the poverty line. If this elite could not resist the temptation of vote-for-money, to expect people living below the poverty line (the real electorate) to behave better during the general elections is indeed doing violence to reason.

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In such a well-entrenched system of vote-for-money, the advantage by default goes to the candidate with the deepest pockets, especially when the large majority of electorate survives below the poverty line. The appointed polling agents of electable, who by law are allowed to be present inside the polling stations, dominate the polling staff and efficiently supervise this system of vote-for-money. These polling agents of the district elite keep an eye on the voters, who have already been paid, to actually come and fulfil their end of the bargain.

That is why, year after year, the same families and the same faces turn up in the legislatures. That is why, year after year, the same families and the same faces turn up in the legislatures. The most comprehensive attempt at re-engineering the electoral process, in order to bring in new faces, was undertaken by Musharraf when he was organizing the 2001 local body elections. The day after the election, Musharraf asked the Chief Secretary of Punjab Province, of the time, ‘how come, in spite of all the changes in the rules, the same families and similar faces have again turned up in each district?’

The answer unmistakably is that the district elite has long-term investments in the thana-patwari patronage system and have deep enough pockets to benefit from the vote-for-money system. To expect that electives could be dislodged by Musharraf through the changes in the rules of the game was indeed naïve! Like all previous attempts at such re-engineering, at best, one set of the district elite was substituted for another set of electables.

The extreme example of this mismanagement or hijacking of the electoral process comes from Karachi. During the 2013 elections, the polling time finished by 5 pm. And at 5.30pm, a Karachi candidate declared victory, having polled more than 150,000 votes. Needless to say, it is impossible to imagine that all the polling staff actually emptied all the boxes, counted all the votes, issued all the forms to the polling agents of each candidate, sent the results by hand to the district returning officer, who tabulated all those results and finally declared a victor in less than 30 minutes.

The Asghar Khan case is a well-documented saga of pre-poll management seen in the 1990 elections, where the establishment effectively manipulated the ROs to deliver the desired vote-count in this case to elect PM Nawaz.

Similarly, in most constituencies of Sindh, there was hardly any exercise of choice by the electorate during the 2013 elections – only one dominant party (PPP) won most of the seats; the polling staff have no way to stand up to the well-entrenched district elite who roam around under the protection of police guns and vehicles. This resulted in denial of voting rights to genuine voters, fraudulent counting and blatantly doctored result aggregation. Even the dispute resolution (appellate procedures) for the re-count of votes induces electoral manipulation, as in many cases, the term of elected representatives expires before the final resolution.

The dispute resolution process is so cumbersome and dependent on heavy fees of lawyers that electables are better bets to manage this complex process. Many of the election petitions filed after 2013 elections are still pending, including, some which challenged key federal ministers; who remained members of the legislature (from 2013 to 2018), while the election petitions challenging their vote count remain pending. This burdensome process creates incentives to manage the polling staff, as there is little chance that the dispute resolution process will later upset the results notified on Election Day.

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The notorious post-election reward system is also well-entrenched. From top to bottom, all the officers and officials who helped produce positive results are rewarded. The senior ones who count ‘properly’, are later rewarded with posts of director generals of departments and ambassadorships. Down below, the thana-patwari patronage system continues to be nurtured by the now ‘duly’ elected representatives. This post-election reward system re-enforces the incentive to keep investing in the said patronage system in preparation for the next election cycle!

The role of technology in promoting fair vote-counts

Technology is one of the key change-agents that ensures the sanctity of the vote. According to the Report on the General Elections-2013, published by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), ‘by using the country’s national civil registry database, managed by the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA), [ECP] generated electoral rolls that carry National Identity Card (NIC) number of each voter as a ‘unique identifier’. A blank box was added in the electoral roll against the name of each voter for getting thumbprint of voters.

For the May 2013 General Elections, the ECP prepared and printed the first ever voter list with photographs, which was used at the polling stations across the country.’ Voter lists have indeed improved a lot due to the NADRA database and many historical complaints about the voter lists have been taken care of, thanks to this linkage. Again, the innovative use of technology (i.e. 8300 SMS service) for the electoral process has also been recognized as aiding the process of free and fair elections.

Two other emerging technological factors have enormous potential to support the process of free and fair elections, i.e., the spread of camera phone technology and its connectivity to social and other media. The amalgam of these two factors can considerable curb the nefarious design of vote stuffing on the election day itself. Hence, the current focus on pre-poll management of the electoral process. The role of modern media in casting an instant torrent of light on the electoral process is transformational.

Moreover, gone are the days when large segments of the society were mere recipients and consumers of news. Today anyone with a smartphone can be as much a creator of news content as the paid seasoned employee of an established media house. This up-loading generation is ready in real-time to shed light on any issue from multiple angles. You never know who is recording what and where that recording may reach in a matter of seconds. These emerging technologies are helping make the electoral process more transparent. Many parts of the country, above all Karachi and most parts of Sindh, however, remain immune to such concerns of Election Day management, or viral videos of vote stuffing, or open harassment and slapping of the polling staff.

Closing thoughts

In spite of this clear evidence of the benefits of technology, Section 103 of the Election Act 2017 states as follows: ‘The Commission may conduct pilot projects for utilization of electronic voting machines and biometric verification system in bye-elections in addition to the existing manual procedures for voter verification, casting and counting of votes to assess the technical efficacy, secrecy, security and financial feasibility of the electronic voting machines and biometric verification system and shall share the results with the Government, which shall, within fifteen days from the commencement of a session of a House after the receipt of the report, lay the same before both Houses of Majlis-e-Shoora (Parliament).’

It is abundantly evident from simple reading of Section 103 that the last 5 years seem to have been completely squandered by the elected representatives by not paying heed to harnessing technology for ensuring transparency and openness. This eloquently speaks for the mendacity of their ‘commitment’ to the newly contrived slogan of ‘respect-the-vote’. Had they got any respect for the vote, they would have done better than Section 103 and introduced real transformation through induction and deployment of technology and its integrated solutions.

Free and fair elections constitute the quintessence of the democratic process and consolidation of democratic tradition especially in the countries witnessing the political transition to maturity. They need to be conducted in an objective, impartial, neutral and independent manner with due respect and recognition of the sanctity of the vote and expression of the collective will of the people. For the purpose, the entire election process including the pre-election, election-day and post-election segments has to exhibit system-wide coherence, consistency and transparency.

The responsibility to nurture and strengthen the roots of democracy lies squarely on the shoulders of the elected representatives otherwise it is futile and hypocritical to cry hoarse when the results are not in their favour.

The real predicament is that the electables (from amongst whom come the elected representatives) are, however, the beneficiaries of this rigged system. Is it even fair to expect the elected representatives to fix the vote count system in their ‘rotten boroughs’? Perhaps change will come only if the elite have to personally experience, for a few days, the suffering and misery of the real electorate and they realize, like King Lear:

‘….wheresoe’r you are, That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm, How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides, Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en Too little care of this!’

Asim Imdad Ali is currently a partner in an Islamabad based law firm.He earlier served in Central Superior Services, at positions of increasing responsibility, in its prestigious DMG group (1992-2006), and later served as Head of legal and regulatory affairs in a major multinational company. He is an LLB (gold) from Punjab University, LLM from Kings College London, and did Masters in Public Administration at Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University where he was an Edward S Mason Fellow. The views expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space. 

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