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Friday, March 31, 2023

Slaughter of an election – a trial for the next general election

Pakistan's foremost electoral expert argues that so far in Pakistan's history, the only difference one can find between various elections is the degree of rigging. As a man can be either sick or healthy, he argues that, similarly, an election is either free and fair or not. It can't be both. Electoral system disease starts from delimitation to the role that APOs can play in ensuring the defeat of unwanted candidates and much more.

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Every electoral process consists of hundreds of steps, and each step demands minimum standards. For instance, Pakistan’s Elections Act 2017 has 15 chapters, 241 sections, and about 2,000 sub-clauses, and behind each word of the act, there is some rationale. It is assumed that if they are applied in letter and spirit, the election will be transparent, free, and fair. But sadly, the state institutions failed us each time an election was held in our country. And this is true from top to bottom. The only difference between various elections is the degree of rigging. A man is either sick or healthy. Similarly, an election is either free and fair or not. It can’t be both. The next step has always been to investigate the nature and severity of the illness.

Electoral Diseases starting with Gerrymandering

This analogy helps us understand our electoral system’s diseases. Let’s start with delimitation. Besides small-scale but widespread rigging, gerrymandering has always been a strategic tool to achieve ‘positive’ results. Without going into the politics of MQM’s boycott of local elections in Karachi, the fact is that there existed a considerable variation in the allocation of voters to union committees (UC) across districts. For instance, in Malir, Keamari, and West, on average, one ward consisted of 6,577 voters, while in Korangi, South, and Central districts, the average number of voters per UC was 11,000.

Moreover, this discrimination has reduced the number of UC chairmen in the latter three districts. In the former three districts, there are 95 chairmen against 2,501,500 voters, and in the latter three districts, 125 chairmen for 5,046,219 voters. If we use the ratio of the former, the latter towns should have 190 UC chairmen. This differentiation is likely to impact the election of Karachi’s mayor hugely. It means two voters of the former set of districts were made equal to one voter in the latter three districts. The principle of equality of vote was violated. The following table clearly shows the violation of the delimitation law.

District Total Registered Voters Wards Voters per Ward Union Committees Voter perUC
Malir 782,847 120 6,524 30 26,095
Korangi 1,425,855 148 9,634 37 38,537
East 1,568,587 172 9,120 43 36,479
South 1,216,152 104 11,694 26 46,775
Keamari 798,905 128 6,241 32 24,966
West 919,748 132 6,968 33 27,871
Central 2,051,777 180 11,399 45 45,595
7 8,763,871 984 8,906 246 35,625

Source: Election Commission of Pakistan

According to ECP’s latest results, PPPP won 91 seats, and JI won 85 in Karachi. In Central Karachi, where the size of UC was the largest – having as many as 45,595 voters per UC, JI won 37 (88%) of 42 seats. Suppose the size of UC in the Central district was equal to Keamari – which was 24,966 per UC, the district would have 83 UCs. Therefore, the share of JI and PPPP would have 70 and 8, respectively. We can also calculate differently. If the size of the UCs in Malir had been equal to the central district, instead of 30 UCs, it would have only 17 UCs. Please remember that PPPP has won 20 (67%) of the 30 seats. Hence, PPPP would have won only 11 seats. Should the size of every UC of all towns be equal to Keamari, JI would have won 140 UCs, PPPP 119, and PTI 61. This is one of the best examples of gerrymandering in our country. But drivers of rigging can’t just rely on skewed delimitation. They have many other tools in their box to ensure the victory of their favorite candidates.

Read more: Govt expresses inability to hold LG elections in capital despite court ruling

Measuring the health of polling, counting, and result management is essentially important because, under our electoral system, candidates can win or lose even by one vote. Therefore, assessing compliance with every sub-section of the Elections Act is a must. For instance, under section 84 (3-d) Presiding Officer (PO) must sign and stamp the backside of each ballot paper that he issues to a voter, and every ballot paper that lacks it, will not be counted. With this omission, a potential winner candidate can be translated into defeat as in local elections often, the margin of victory in most cases has always been very narrow. The question is how the PO or APO would know in advance who will vote for whom?

Folly of the Parchi

Interestingly the clue has often been provided by contesting candidates/parties. Let me narrate the folly. Most voters, before going to polling stations, get parchi from the polling camps of their favorite candidate/party. Parchi is a small piece of paper with the voter’s electoral details, including the polling booth number. So far, so good, but the problem arises because parchi also contains the electoral symbol of the party/candidate. When a voter hands over such a parchi to APO for the issuance of the ballot paper, he reveals his party affiliation to him too. Let’s assume 10 APOs in the local election have been bribed or coerced by a party not to sign and stamp the back of 10 ballot papers of each of the voters of the unwanted candidate; it will exclude 100 of his votes from the count. Resultantly, his chance of winning the election was eliminated through fraud.

Consider its larger impact. Roughly each UC, on average, had 25 polling stations and 9,000 registered voters. In Karachi, the turnout was less than 20% (1800). On average, the margin of victory appears to be less than 200 votes at 70% of polling stations in Karachi. In Sindh’s local elections, the above-mentioned corrupt practice was likely to have taken place at about 20% of polling stations. And it was noticed by many, including polling agents and observers. However, a pro-ECP election observation group reported the same at 15% of the polling stations. No wonder some major political parties have been questioning the credibility of elections. However, to appease certain parties and ECP, the group had to draw this pleasing (though wrongly) conclusion from its observation data – ‘peaceful, orderly and well-managed polling.’

Usual tricks on Form XI and Form XII

Also, consider this. According to the same observer group, the polling staff of 26% and 41% of polling stations didn’t provide copies of Form XI (statement of the count of polling station) and Form XII, respectively, to polling agents. And as many as 36% of the observers were denied copies of Form XI, and 57% could not obtain Form XII. Also, under the law, polling staff must paste copies of these forms on the wall of polling stations. This section of the act was violated in more than 50% of places. The group reported that at 15% of polling stations, either voters were not allowed to vote or allowed by showing a copy of CNIC. The group also noted serious’ omissions and inadequacies in the Form-XI (Statement of the Count). For instance, POs did not duly fill out the forms properly, didn’t record many essential details, including polling station numbers/names, and gender-disaggregated polled votes, and didn’t bother to sign and stamp the forms. No wonder the ECP has failed to announce the results of six UCs and taken ten long days to report the results.

The cumulative impact of the above-mentioned corrupt practices can’t be calculated systematically as they are committed discreetly and spread out. It is also difficult for media and election observers due to a lack of skills and scarcity of time. Unless a forensic audit of each ballot paper, each form, and each bag are undertaken, it is impossible to measure the level of fraudulent practices. However, the little evidence that we have was sufficient to argue that local elections were likely to have different results as the process was rigged at every little step. Putting the first last. An unprecedented number of seats in local councils were filled without any contest. In the first phase, it was 16%, which jumped to 21% in the second phase. In the Hyderabad division, it was as high as 34%. Interestingly, many uncontested winners belong to the ruling party of Sindh. The slaughter was theatrical.

Read more: PTI amped up for general elections as KP Assembly gets dissolved

Finally, what could be concluded from the Karachi local election? First, the rigging plan was highly comprehensive but not sophisticated. Second, its execution remained poor due to two factors. First, JI’s vigilance and voter mobilization frustrated the government plan, and second, at many polling stations, POs and APOs refused to cooperate with the government, which disarmed those ROs who wanted to help the ruling party. Third, it is worth reminding that the first phase of local elections in Sindh occurred in June 2022. In the past, the gap between the two phases of local elections has never been more than six weeks. Floods hit the Sindh province at the end of August. Therefore, the ruling party had enough time to hold the second phase of elections in July or early August. But it didn’t.

A pertinent question arises

Why did the government continue dragging its feet? It took the ECP over seven months to hold the second phase. The most likely reason was to make elaborate arrangements to rig the local elections. The ruling coalition and PPP didn’t want to suffer another humiliating defeat after the Punjab by-elections. And secondly, the ruling coalition appears to be testing its elaborate rigging plan.

Strange patterns deserve serious examination

The same reason seems to drive the drivers for not announcing general elections for Punjab and KP provincial assemblies, while dates for 33 National Assembly vacant seats have been announced. The Aristoteles of the ruling parties must examine the lessons from the Karachi plan’s failure, which would, of course, take time. One of the reasons General Zia didn’t hold a 90-day promised election was the fear of Mr. Bhutto’s landslide victory. The same fear determines the course of action of the establishment and 14 ruling parties. But let’s remember the year is 2023 and not 1977.

The country has experienced terrible times, including its disintegration, but hope and unity in the rest of the country remained high. Eleven years of Zia’s tyranny could not end our hope as political and civil society remained determined to liberate itself from an illegitimate ruler. But since last April, the nation’s hope has been melting like glaciers do in summer and causing floods. It is worrisome that nearly one million young-educated people have already left the country and everyone else who isn’t trying to flee from the country. We are trapped between drought and floods.

Sarwar Bari is the former Secretary-General of FAFEN and he heads Pattan Development Organisation. Pattan has been working with disaster-prone and marginalized communities since 1992 when super floods hit Pakistan. Since its inception, the organization has evolved a holistic disaster risk reduction approach that stands on five themes: capacity building, gender mainstreaming, social action, governance monitoring, and defending human rights and civil liberties. Research-based advocacy is being used for public policy improvement. Currently, Pattan’s partners are working in 27 districts of Pakistan.