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Stamp of authority

Published 19 Mar, 2015 04:00pm

After appointing Returning Officers (ROs) for each constituency, the main duties of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) are reduced to guiding, supervising and communicating with them. The ROs select buildings to set up polling stations, decide which voter will cast their vote at which polling station and identify staff to perform the polling day duties. The ROs keep sending the details of all these activities to the ECP which notifies them in the official gazette.

For the polling day, the ROs are again directly responsible for distributing the polling paraphernalia (ballot papers, stamps and boxes etc.) amongst the presiding officers of all polling stations, ensuring that polling processes are carried out as prescribed by the ECP. Presiding officers, in turn, send the vote counts to the ROs for consolidation of the results. The ECP does not intervene in any of these procedures directly. Even if it receives a complaint, it first seeks a report on the subject from the concerned RO.

So, it is not wrong to say that the ECP merely regulates and supervises an election while the ROs, temporarily adopted by the ECP from other governmental departments, administer it for all practical purposes. That the gazette notifications expand the definition of the ECP to include the ROs into its fold, during the time required to perform election duties, is a legal nicety with little or no practical meaning.

We inherited this scheme for administering elections from our colonial masters and adopted the same for the National, and now the provincial, Assembly elections in 1950s which were widely reported to be flawed, fraudulent and rigged in Punjab, Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The ruling Muslim League was accused of stealing the mandate through its influence over the civil bureaucracy which administered these elections. The central government, however, failed to rig the public mandate in the same way in Bengal during the 1954 national assembly election for the sole reason that it was administered by the Bengali bureaucracy, which had no love lost for the Muslim League.

Similarly, when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was accused of rigging the 1977 election, he is reported to have done it not through the ECP but through the civil bureaucracy which administered that election and had decided to side with him. Many, in fact, believe that the bureaucracy rigged the election for Zulfikar Ali Bhutto without any express instructions from him.

General Zia-ul-Haq was innovative in exploiting this weak link in election administration to his benefit. He inserted another tier of election administrators, District Returning Officers (DROs), between the ROs and the ECP. The DROs were deputy commissioners who came under the direct control of the government. As the ROs of a constituency reported to the DROs, the ECP shrank to the size of a rubber stamp under Zia’s system.

Ghulam Ishaq Khan, former president of Pakistan, did not change this when he took charge of affairs in 1988. He, however, replaced deputy commissioners with the district judiciary ostensibly because judicial officers had a better reputation for probity. Since then all general elections have been administered by the district level judicial officers but none of these have enjoyed a non-controversial status. For at least one election, rigging is now an established fact. The short order of the Supreme Court dated October 19, 2012, in the famous Asghar Khan case (Human Rights Case Number 19 of 1996) says: “Late Ghulam Ishaq Khan, the then president of Pakistan, General (retd) Aslam Baig and General (retd) Asad Durrani acted in violation of the Constitution by facilitating a group of politicians and political parties, etc, to ensure their success against the rival candidates in the general election of 1990.”

Khan set up an election cell in the presidency that not only doled out ‘campaign grants’ to his favorite politician but also manipulated election results. The announcement of results was centralised and presiding officers avoided issuing statements of count to the polling agents so that political parties could not undertake a parallel vote count on their own. Legally, the presiding officers cannot refuse these statements to the polling agents but whenever they had to provide the vote counts they did so under wrong signatures so that in the case of a dispute these could not be used as legally valid proof of result manipulation.

Benazir Bhutto found this practice so damaging that, before the 1993 general election, she made a special request to the prime minister of the caretaker government, Moeen Qureshi, to amend the rules and require the presiding officers to thumb impress the vote count statements besides signing them. While her wish was granted and the amended rule applies even today, this demonstrates how even small loopholes at the administration level can be exploited to influence an entire election result.

The polling stations are mostly staffed by school and college teachers. Within the power ziggurat of our bureaucracy, teachers belong to the lowest rung which simply means that they cannot stand up to the powerful feudal lords and urban mafias, or resist pressure from any special cells operating in the presidency. If the local power players, ‘special cells’ and senior bureaucrats are in unison in an election, the polling staff can fearlessly indulge in what they are asked to do.

In contrast, the ROs are not hapless at all. They, instead, have well articulated interests and stakes in the governance system and, by extension, in politics as they belong to the top echelons of bureaucracy. The practice of entrusting them with the responsibility of administering the most important of political exercises, therefore, is flawed in principle.

In practice, too, the experiment of designating even the most reputable and non-partisan government officers as ROs has not worked. This is very obvious in the case of judicial officers: instead of being able to lend credence to the election process through their perceived cleaner image, they have ended up spoiling their own reputation. The National Judicial Policy acknowledged this — in 2009 and 2012 with a clause which barred the judiciary’s participation in the conduct of the polling process (see A Vote Against the Judges?).

Instances of rigging took place despite deployment of security personnel at polling stations. Photo by White Star.
Instances of rigging took place despite deployment of security personnel at polling stations. Photo by White Star.

Having inserted this clause a good four years ago, the authors of the National Judicial Policy gave ECP sufficient time to roll in a new model for administering the 2013 election. To begin with, ECP had its own line of staff, though rather small, at the district and the divisional level — a District Election Commissioner (DEC) and a Regional Election Commissioner respectively along with their subordinate officials. This staff, thus, could have easily assumed the RO duties for the May 11 polls. These officials are also trained and experienced in election management as this is their only and full-time responsibility. For others – like judicial officers – conducting an election is a temporary engagement. It makes sense to expect that full-time professionals would deliver better than those working on a temporary basis.

This, indeed, was quite obvious on May 11. Before the election, the ECP had made a small amendment in its sheet of statement of counts (Form XIV) which were to be filled by presiding officers at polling stations to document the ballot count. The change required the officers to count the ballots cast by male and female voters separately and then add them up. A number of presiding officers either did not abide by the instruction on purpose or were unable to comprehend the change and provided only the total figures as was the practice in the past. A cursory look at the copies of these forms submitted by the presiding officers from across Pakistan reveals that many of them, in fact, need a basic course in arithmetic as well.

ECP’s own staff, in fact, has administered all by-elections over the last many years. Why can’t it handle the general elections as well? If the ECP had thought that its staff still lacked capacity, it could have devised some innovative solutions such as holding elections in parts, or hiring temporary contract staff to work as subordinates to its officers. This approach would have increased the ECP’s direct role in the administration of elections and would have definitely had a positive impact on the quality and credibility of the election.

There is a faint realisation in official quarters that this actually is the way forward, as far as improving the quality and credibility of elections is concerned. But bureaucratic inertia thwarting this development is depressingly gigantic. The ECP’s bureaucracy has evaded this obvious solution mainly because this would have increased its workload besides shifting the entire logistical, legal and moral onus of administering elections onto the ECP itself.

The ECP’s reliance over this franchise-based model of administration, in fact, has increased over the years rather than decreased. After failing to enlist all eligible voters in the latest voter lists, the ECP did not even attempt to find the flaws in its methodology, let alone correcting them. Instead, it had the laws amended, and subcontracted this responsibility to the National Database and Registration Authority whose database was not primarily designed to serve as electoral rolls. Then again, instead of taking direct charge of administration for the 2013 election, the ECP opted to follow the beaten track and requested the superior judiciary to waive its 2009 restriction on the appointment of judicial officers as ROs.

If Pakistan has to stay firm on the course of democratic development, it has to institutionalise all the mechanisms that facilitate and ensure such development. The selection of a non-partisan Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) acceptable to all stakeholders is just one of the steps towards such institutionalisation but that alone cannot make a great difference. What is more important is that the ECP should increase its role in the election’s practical administration. The ECP needs to overcome its existential crisis, abandon its ad hoc approach, and occupy the full space that is afforded to it in the Constitution and laws.

This one change can trigger a series of improvements that may put to rest all major sources of anxiety related to elections. For example, the DECs have the time, expertise and resources to develop a permanent polling scheme for each constituency in their respective districts, and also to decide where to set up a polling station. If these decisions are made in advance, instead of hours before the polling day (as was done this time around), and notified permanently, it will help voters, political parties and other stakeholders a lot, besides clearing the air of suspicion that continues to hang over such decisions.

Dissatisfied voters protest for re-election in Karachi.
Dissatisfied voters protest for re-election in Karachi.

Similarly, the DECs can run training courses for the polling staff much in advance of an election and on a periodic basis to improve polling-station management. Currently, the polling staff is listed merely weeks, sometimes days, before the polling and hurriedly given a shoddy training session. It is pushed into performing a highly important job without testing whether or not it has acquired the requisite knowledge. This results in mismanagement and chaos at polling stations, which is where the general public actually ‘experiences’ an election, and if they witness disorder and malpractices there, they cannot be convinced about the fairness of the election, through any other means.

Sadly, the main ECP strategy to address these practical problems is to brush them under the carpet, obstruct transparency and refuse information. Electoral rolls, polling schemes and ballot counts are the main documents which, if made public in time, can remove a lot of doubts about the health of an election. While the problems with the present electoral rolls demand a separate write-up, the ECP’s website marked the polling scheme for Balochistan as ‘awaited’ when last accessed on May 26, 2013, a good two weeks after the polling had already taken place in the province. What shall one conclude: was election in Balochistan held without a polling scheme or did the authorities who ‘administered’ the election not find it suitable to share the polling scheme even with the ECP?

Changes introduced in 1993 in the law (Representation of People Act 1976) bind presiding officers to affix a thumb-impressed and signed copy of the statement of the vote count (Form XIV) at the polling station in public view. Is this law not enough to allow the ECP to put up scanned images of all statements of count on its website before notifying the names of the winning candidates? This one act could do more in establishing the credibility of the May 11 election than any image-building campaign can, howsoever massive it may be. The ECP, however, has so far resisted the demand to make these statements public.

The ECP has survived the 2013 election without going through any radical reforms, thanks to the fact that its ‘brand ambassador’ – the CEC – enjoys the status of a celebrity. A non-partisan and acceptable to all CEC was justifiably expected to be part of the solution to this institution’s woes. But if the institution starts hiding its weaknesses behind the stature of its head, the goodwill may not last beyond one election, and that too having already passed.