Election gone wrong
BY A H M E D B I L A L M E H B O O B | 6/3/2015

BARELY six months after the Peshawar Army Public School tragedy that left almost 150 schoolchildren and others dead in a terrorist attack, some six million voters turned out to vote in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa local government election braving not only the terrorists` threat but also the hot weather.

Around 40,000 councillors of grass-roots village and neighbourhood councils were elected in a major leap forward to build the third and most important tier of the democratic structure. In that respect, KP outdid the two larger provinces, Punjab and Sindh.

Both the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) and the people and administration of KP must be commended for having finally held one of the most complex elections despite the huge challenges they faced.

The threat of terrorism and the burning heat were not the only challenges the voters faced in Sunday`s election. Some 26,000 polling booths proved insufficient to let the voters cast their seven ballot papers each. At many places, polling staff showed up late; at others, election material did not arrive in time.

The polling staff generally lacked election training. Some provincial ministers and other influential politicians flexed their muscle and tried to influence the polling staff.

Isolated cases of staff partisanship were reported. All these flaws in poll management and the resulting frustration at the long wait in the heat led to brawls and clashes.

Reportedly 11 people died in various incidents.

What went wrong and who is responsible? Article 218 (3) of the Constitution places the responsibility of holding free, fair and transparent elections squarely and unambiguously on the ECP`s shoulders. It was, therefore, the responsibility of the ECP to accurately estimate the number of expected voters. The ECP should have run some simple mock exercises to ascertain the time taken by each voter to cast seven ballots.

Based on that it could have easily worked out the required number of polling booths for a nine-hour-long polling day.

This exercise was either not carried out or assumptions were gravely flawed as booths in most polling stations proved far less than required. Most of the violent incidents had their roots in crowded polling stations, a long wait to cast votes and the inability of the polling staff to properly guide and manage the exercise. Once violence erupted, it gathered momentum and this led to ugly incidents culminating in tragic deaths at places. The ECP should, therefore, accept the primary responsibility for mismanagement.

The ECP has recently disclosed that it wanted to hold the KP local government election in phases but it relented in the face of the provincial government`s opposition.

This is a serious case of abdication of responsibility on the part of the ECP. A process of soul-searching and introspection should ensue at the ECP and lead to specific actions and systemic reforms.

One must, however, concede that the ECP has been working under tremendous pressure over the past three years. It has been observed that a section of the judiciary did not treat the ECP with the level of respect this independent statutory body deserved and that is accorded to electoral authorities in other democracies such as India. The ECP has its weaknesses and flaws but it is also true that the ECP was not allowed to use its independent judgement in deciding the dates of various important activities.

The election body, for example, was subjected to extreme pressures to agree to an unrealistic deadline for the completion of fresh computerised electoral rolls in 2011-12.

For local government elections in various provinces, the superior judiciary repeatedly fixed the dates which the ECP at times considered unrealistic.

Some political parties openly ridiculed and unjustly accused the ECP of being a party to alleged poll rigging in the 2013 general election. This campaign must have greatly demotivated the ECP and its staff.

Political parties cannot be absolved of the obligation to contribute to orderly elections.

They must educate their workers and voters on the polling procedures, train their polling agents and teach tolerance to their workers.

The recent election highlights this serious deficiency especially in the context of PTI supporters.

Police and local administration should also take the blame for not stopping or at least controlling highly provocative victory celebrations in front of rival party offices.

It seems that the ECP, to a large extent, and other stakeholders to some degree, failed to learn adequate lessons from 2013 general election and to apply these to the recent LG election in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

One hopes that the lessons learnt the hard way on Sunday will not be forgotten and that the upcoming LG polls in Punjab and Sindh will be more orderly than the ones held in KP. •
The writer is the president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (Pildat)

Published in Dawn