ISLAMABAD, February 24, 2010: By-election for the fifty-fifth constituency of the National Assembly [Rawalpindi-VI] was characterized by relatively low turnout, heavy presence of security forces, including intelligence officials, at times interfering with the electoral process, election officials failing to enforce electoral regulations and significant procedural irregularities, reports the Free and fair Election Network (FAFEN) in its Preliminary Report of NA-55 By-Election Observation.
The seat had fallen vacant after the resignation of PML-N MNA Haji Pervez Khan in May 2009. As many as 333,872 voters are registered in NA-55, with 183,139 being males and 150,733 females. The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) had set-up 250 polling stations – 133 male and 137 female polling stations. More than 30 polling stations were setup in privately-owned schools and buildings, which is not in line with the electoral rules.
People in NA-55 went to the polls on February 24, 2010 after almost a month-long competitive election campaign that witnessed contesting candidates working overtime to reach out to voters in a constituency that covers thickly populated urban neighborhoods of Rawalpindi. The campaign did not see any letup despite an attack early in the campaign on a sub-election office of Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, the candidate of the Awami Muslim League.
FAFEN conducted short-term observation of the pre-election process and deployed 50 trained observers on Election Day to monitor more than 90 percent of the polling stations set up in the constituency. Observers spent between 45 and 60 minutes in each polling station to document their observations and findings on a standardized 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 ECP has provided to election officials.
While FAFEN will release a detailed report on February 26, 2010, this preliminary report is based on information from 146 polling stations – 76 male and 76 female. Some of FAFEN’s key findings include:
1. Voter Turnout
According to FAFEN observers reporting from 29 randomly sampled polling stations, the turnout remained 35.96 percent. Male voters appeared to have turned out in greater numbers at 39.8 per cent as compared to female voters, whose turnout was recorded at 27.6 per cent. The following table shows the hour-wise turnout and establishes that people turned out in greater numbers towards the evening.
2. Restrictions on FAFEN Observers
FAFEN observers were stopped from observing the voting and counting processes at more than 15 polling stations by either the presiding officers or the security officials. The ECP allows its accredited observers to monitor all stages of the election, including the opening of polling stations, voting and the counting process. However, FAFEN observers as well as some media persons reported that the election officials under close supervision of security officers were hesitant in particularly opening the counting process for public scrutiny, raising questions about the fairness of the electoral exercise.
3. Fraudulent Voting
At 12 polling stations, ballot books had counterfoils filled before the ballots had been removed, indicating the possibility of fraudulent votes being stuffed in ballot boxes. Similarly, FAFEN observers reported from 12 polling stations that the numbers of Computerized National Identity Cards of voters as written on the counterfoils of the ballot books did not match the corresponding entries on the electoral rolls, again raising the possibility that fraudulent voting might have taken place. At 19 polling stations, dubious thumb impressions marked on counterfoils of ballot books at the same angle with phasing out ink print were observed. In the case of genuine voters, each thumb impression is marked in fresh, dark ink and may be at varying angles.
4. Unauthorized Persons Inside Polling Stations
In most polling stations, security officials were present inside polling stations and polling booths. Many presiding officers said that security officers were present inside the premises of polling stations without their permission and on the orders of the local administration. FAFEN observers also noticed intelligence officials entering polling stations and asking questions about the number of votes cast, an act that is against standard electoral procedures.
Under electoral rules, even at sensitive polling stations, police is only authorized to maintain order outside polling stations in order to ensure smooth polling. They can only enter polling stations or booths when requested by the presiding officer. At some polling stations, security officials accompanied FAFEN observers during their visit to polling stations and even supervised their interactions with election officials. At some polling stations, FAFEN observers reported that police officers were assisting election officials in counting and handling election materials.
Armed civilians were observed to have been present inside eight polling stations. Public representatives and officials were present inside six polling stations. At one polling station in Khayban-e- Sir Syed Area, an unidentified man was acting on behalf of a female presiding officer and was positionedat a place from where he could view voters stamping their ballots.
5. Campaigning and Canvassing around Polling Stations
FAFEN observers reported from all polling stations that the workers of particularly AML, PML-N, JI and PTI were campaigning and canvassing in violation of election laws that bar the same within 400 yards of polling stations. At 13 polling stations, campaigning and canvassing was being done inside the polling stations. Incidents of use of loud-speakers for canvassing were also observed. Similarly, at most polling stations observed, election officials did not remove campaign materials as required by election laws and specifically mentioned in the ECP instructional handbooks.
6. Partisan Election Officials and Breach of Right to Secret Voting
The setting up of cameras inside polling stations, apparently for security reasons, is a certain case of breach of voters’ privacy. In at least one polling station, which was also reported to the Returning officer, a security camera was affixed on top of the secrecy screen where voters go and stamp their ballot.
FAFEN observers reported from 29 polling stations that either the election officials or the polling agents were going behind the secrecy screen to assist voters in stamping ballots. Such practices interfere with people’s right to vote in secrecy, a fundamental electoral right. At some polling stations, secrecy screens were affixed in a manner that election officials could view voters stamping their ballots. In some polling stations, voters were allowed to vote without the prerequisite CNIC.
Many of the procedural irregularities especially the presence of unauthorized personnel inside polling stations, including security officials, may just be due to lack of training of election staff, who are generally not clear of their authority under the election laws.
- The ECP should ensure that security officials perform only their designated duty of maintaining law and order outside of polling stations and do not attempt to manage election officials.
- The ECP should reprimand all election officials who failed to enforce the election rules and laws.
- 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.
- To eliminate unauthorized people from being in polling stations:
- Presiding Officers should be encouraged and provided adequate protections to use their magisterial powers.
- All polling officials must be required to carry their Government Service Cards to prove their identity on Election Day.
- 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.
- 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.