Punjab LG Elections – Phase 1: Restrictions on Observers Mar Relatively Peaceful Election in Punjab

LAHORE: An impressive number of people turned out to vote in the first phase of the Local Government Election in Punjab held in 12 districts, which were relatively peaceful but marked with procedural irregularities and illegalities that continue to show a weaker grip of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) on the enforcement of electoral processes. One of the most pronounced irregularities on the Election Day was the barrier on FAFEN’s observation of both voting and the counting processes at the polling stations despite issuance of accreditation by the ECP, says FAFEN statement issued on Sunday.

The report is being released with the purpose of influencing improvements in the second and third phases of Local Government elections which are due on November 19 and December 5, 2015 respectively. The election in Islamabad Capital Territory is scheduled for November 30, 2015.

FAFEN’s preliminary findings suggest that 177 (71%) of the 249 polling stations across 12 districts from where the information could be acquired reported various violations of the electoral procedures, including restrictions on independent observation of voting and counting processes, breach of secrecy of voting, canvassing inside polling stations, presence of security personnel inside polling stations and incidences of interference by security and election staff in the voting processes. FAFEN’s observation was also curtailed due to arbitrary issuance of accreditation cards by District Returning Officers (DROs) who provided these cards to only 757 observers against permission for 1,013 by the ECP.

The conduct of election itself is a step forward and significant in terms of deepening of democracy in the country. The campaign that preceded the Election Day was competitive and relatively peaceful, although competing political actors continued to allege interference of the provincial government in the electoral processes through use of official machinery and funds allocated for development to woo voters. There has been little action by the ECP to enforce its Code of Conduct for Political Parties and Contesting Candidates which was promulgated well ahead of elections.

The observation is conducted in strict compliance with the ECP’s Code of Conduct for Observers and FAFEN’s own code, which requires observers to be non-partisan, autonomous, independent and accurate in their observations. All observers are required to sign a legal undertaking about their independence and non-partisanship before being incorporated for observation. According to ECP’s latest instructions which were passed on to FAFEN at its meeting with ECP officials on October 30, 2015, observers may also be summoned as witnesses in any administrative and judicial proceedings. Additionally, ECP has also instructed FAFEN to ensure that observers have their accreditation cards signed by the Presiding Officers of the polling stations they observe. FAFEN will return all the accreditation cards to the ECP as proof that the polling stations were indeed observed.

For this election, FAFEN held 33 trainings across the province on technical and procedural aspects of voting and counting processes based on the PLGA 2013, amended in 2015. FAFEN actually planned to deploy 1,013 observers – 724 males and 289 females – to observe 3,976 polling stations located in 696 union councils of 11 districts, 147 unions councils of Lahore Metropolitan Corporation and 604 wards of 60 municipal committees to be established in these districts. Each observer was required to observe at least four polling stations in every sampled union council and one in each ward. Observers spent at least an hour in every polling station to document their observation at three levels-polling environment outside polling stations, voting processes inside polling stations and voting environment in each booth of a polling station.

To complement its direct observation, FAFEN set up a call centre where 20 agents collected information from observers throughout Election Day. In addition, a media monitoring cell was also set up. This preliminary report is based on the information collected from the observers as well as media monitoring. However, both information sources are classified and analyzed separately.

Key irregularities that FAFEN observers reported on Election Day included:

FAFEN observers were barred from observing the voting processes at 5.6% percent of a total of 249 polling stations from where the data could be acquired on the Election Day.

The restrictions on the observation of counting processes were wider. Observers were reported to be banned from observing counting process at 35 of the 249 polling stations from where the Election Day reports were gathered.

Out of a total of 249 polling stations reporting on Election Day, incidences of violence were reported at 14 (5.6%).

Delayed opening of polling stations was reported by 10 (4%) of polling stations from 4 districts across Punjab – Bahawalnagar, Lahore, Lodhran and Kasur ranging between 20% to 2.5% respectively.

Of 249 polling stations from where the information was collected on the Election Day, 177 (71.1%) were reported to have security officials present inside the premises of polling stations.

According to the reports by observers from 249 polling stations, party or candidates’ campaign material was present inside 10 (4%) polling stations.

FAFEN Observers reported violation of secrecy of voting from 10.8% of the polling stations observed in 12 districts of Punjab.

FAFEN observers reported a number of incidents where candidates, political leaders, political workers, influential persons or security personnel were found persuading voters to vote in favour of a specific candidate or party. There were 10 polling stations where candidates themselves or their party workers were asking for votes. Three of these 10 polling stations were located in Bahawalnagar, two each in Gujrat, Kasur, Lahore and one in Lodhran. A single incident of a political leader (other than the candidate) requesting votes was also reported from Bahawalnagar.

Out of the total 249 polling stations from which the reports of interruption in polling were collected, seven were reported of having break during voting.