LG Polls:Mismanagement mars the polling process

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Youth are standing in queue to exercise their right to vote in Lower Dir district of Khyber Pakhutnkhwa: Photo By News Lens Pakistan / Izharullah

Peshawar:  Democracy is messy and if anything goes to prove the dictum, it is the May 30 local elections in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the largest ever electoral process in the history of the province to elect nearly 40,000 local representatives. But the euphoria over devolution of power to grassroots witnessed in the run-up to elections has been dampened by incidents of violence and accusations of rigging during elections.

Independent observers that monitored the local elections over the weekend said irregularities varied from casting of blank ballot papers and absence of symbols of candidates on ballot papers to mismanagement and fraud where votes were cast on identity cards without voters who owned them present at the polling station.

Initial findings by Fair and Free Elections Network (FAFEN), an independent organization that monitors elections, suggest that political parties and contesting candidates, particularly those from towns and districts, indulged in open ‘breach’ of electoral laws that bar candidates from canvassing within a 200 meter radius of polling stations.

“Campaigning of candidates went on freely at party camps set up close to the polling stations with no action from the authorities to check this,” said Shahid Fiaz, Chief Executive Officer of FEFAN. “Among incidents of mismanagement were the late arrival of polling officials, sloppy logistical arrangements, non-availability of election material and ballot papers with errors.”

The long-awaited local government polls were held in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa after a gap of nearly 10 years, following the restoration of democracy in Pakistan in 2008 where an elected government took over from President Parvez Musharraf, a retired four star army general who had been in power since 2001.

It took provincial assemblies in the four provinces nearly five years since 2008 to legislate their own laws to hold the local elections. Balochistan was the first province where local elections were held in December 2013. Khyber Pakhtunkwa followed suit in May 2015. The province of Punjab will hold local elections in November 2015 and Sindh in March 2016.

In Khyber Pakhtunkwa, the local elections were  held in 3,339 neighborhoods and village councils of 978 wards in 24 districts of the province, with the exception of Kohistan where elections were stayed after the provincial government’s decision to bifurcate Kohistan was challenged in the Peshawar High Court. 

FAFEN, that has observed the polling process through 987 observers – 503 of them male and 484 female – says nearly 13 percent of the total 11,221 polling stations were reported to have opened after the official voting time of 8 am. Such delays were reported from 14 out of 24 districts.

“Most instances of delayed start were reported from Mardan, followed by Peshawar, Lakki Marwat, Swabi, Bannu, Swat and Karak, ” says FAFEN’s Shahid Fiaz. “One of the reasons of delays in polling was zealous voters and polling agents who interfered with the work of polling officials.”

FAFEN had deployed its observers in 3,000 out of 11,221 polling stations in all 24 districts where the local elections were held. According to FAFEN, it was the largest ever electoral process in the history of the province to elect as nearly 40,000 local representatives.

FAFEN figures show that as many as 39,079 candidates contested  23,111 general seats in neighborhood and village councils, 7,681 candidates contested 6,678 seats reserved for women, 15,700 candidates contested 3,339 seats reserved for peasants and workers, 14,224 candidates competed on 3,339 seats reserved for youth and 349 candidates contested 3,339 seats reserved for minorities. A total of 5,480 candidates contested the polls in 978 wards for 24 district councils and 5,907 candidates in 978 wards for 70 tehsils councils.

Women Participation

The matter of women’s participation in the local elections was high on the list of election monitors after the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) took a tough stance following reports from Lower Dir in Khyber Pakhtunkwa where women were not allowed to vote in by-polls on May 7.

Civil society activists  and women workers of PTI and Awami National Party had brought the matter of women denied the right to vote in Lower Dir to ECP’s attention. Not a single vote out of the 53,000 registered female voters was polled in the by-polls on May 7. Women were reportedly barred by a tribal jirga [council] from exercising their right to vote. The ECP declared the results void and ordered re-elections in PK 95, the constituency where women were stopped from voting.

After widespread criticism of women being disenfranchised, women voters were buoyed up by support from ECP and political parties and reportedly rejected the traditional barriers in rural areas that kept them from casting their votes.

“In a single polling station of  Timergara ward of Lower Dir, 143 out of 391 registered women voters polled their votes,” said Salma Begum, an assistant presiding officer in the polling station.

Jehan Dastagir,a lawyer who has observed elections on the aforementioned polling station of Lower Dir in the past said  he had never witnessed women polling vote at that particular polling station.

‘Women voters at the polling station of Timergara ward!?,” exclaimed Dastagir. ” It was both surprising and reassuring to see women turn up to vote at a station where they could not go before.”

FAFEN’s Shahid Fiaz told News lens that women participation in local elections had improved considerably compared to previous polls in the province. “Obstacles to women’s voting were, nevertheless, prevalent in several areas,” he added.

“Incidents of systemic and traditional barriers to women voting were reported from at least one polling station in 80 out of 462 wards whereas incidents of women stopped from voting was observed in at least one polling station in 17 wards,” said Fiaz.

The FAFEN’s finding state that in the other 63 wards observed by FAFEN, women were disenfranchised-not barred – in at least one polling station due to systematic or institutional issues, such as absence of female polling staff, presence of male staff at female polling stations, absence of female polling stations/booths or shared entrance for both men and women at combined polling stations.

About barring women from casting vote as reported by FAFEN, ECP officials argued that there was no law in Pakistan to declare elections null and void in those polling stations where women hadn’t exercised their right to vote.

Khushal Zada, Deputy Director of ECP in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa proposed that government should legislate on the subject of women participation in the electoral process.

“Laws need to be formulated to declare polling null and void in constituencies where women never exercise their right to vote,” Zada told News Lens on phone.

Polling Staff Woes

Alamgir Khan, an assistant presiding officer in Timergara Tehsil of Lower Dir, observed that due to the complicated local elections process – where a voter is required to poll seven votes for different candidates – polling votes was a slow and complex process.

Khan said the poling staff had to sit in the polling station late till midnight – beyond polling hours – as a large number of voters were left out due to the slow process.

“Lack of proper training of citizens to poll votes was a hindrance to accommodating the large number of voters and completing the electoral process within the stipulated time, “ khan told News Lens.

FAFEN’s findings stated that it took more than four minutes for a single voter to get six to seven ballot papers, mark them and put them in the ballot box.

There were 19 incidents where FAFEN observed that the polling stations were captured by supporters of contesting candidates in 19 districts. Of these 26 percent were reported from Haripur followed by 16 percent each in Peshawar and Bannu districts, 5 percent each were reported from Malakand, Dera Ismail Khan,Abbotabad, and Madan. Nowshehra and Lakki Marwat witnessed 11 percent of the total capturing incidents.

Like men, the women polling staff also faced different problems while performing duties inside the polling stations.

Assistant presiding officer Salma Begum, who was deployed at a joined – both male and female – polling station in Lower Dir said  the elderly women were totally unaware of exercising their right to vote.

She said: “Some of the women stamped the symbol ‘shoe’ considering it a ‘sandal’ – the symbol allotted to female candidates.”

She said male voters entered the the female polling booths that  led to exchange of harsh words among the security personals and polling agents of the candidates.

ECP to Blame?

Parvez Khattak, the Chief Minister of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, blamed Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) for irregularities reported about the elections.

In an interview on Express News, a  private TV channel,  Khattak took pains to disassociate the provincial government from the mismanagement reported in the elections. While terming the elections free and fair, he said that the law enforcement agencies and other relevant government departments worked under the ECP till the completion of the electoral process.

“There was no political nor government interference in their work,” he said in the interview.

Responding to a question about rigging, Khattak said that anyone with a complaint and rigging testimonials could go to the  ECP. The ECP, he said, would look into the complaints.

He said the government was responsible for management and preparations for the elections – a responsibility it fulfilled admirably.

“The government has no objection over repeat polling in any constituencies if the ECP has reservations that elections there were not free and fair,” Khattak told Express News.

Deputy Director Khushal Zada expressed dismay over allegations from the government officials that the Election Commission was responsible for irregularities in the local government elections.

“ECP is not a legislative body to make laws and make sure their implementation,” he said. “It is unfortunate that whenever mismanagement happens [in elections], the government hold ECP responsible for it.”

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