ISLAMABAD, May 24, 2007: Bonded voting, an environment of intimidation, blatant disregard of rules and procedures by election officials and disinterest of political parties followed by a lackluster election campaign characterized the by-election for PP-80, Jhang-VIII seat held on May 24, 2007, says the preliminary election observation report released by Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN) here on Friday.
FAFEN is a network of more than 30 leading civil society organizations in Pakistan. It is dedicated to observing all elections in order to provide data-based recommendations to the Election Commission of Pakistan, political parties and other stake-holders to improve the electoral and political processes in the country.
The report is based on the findings of a 20-member election monitoring delegation that observed all stages of polling – opening of polling stations, voting and count — at 90 out of a total of 148 polling stations. The delegation also interviewed more than 200 voters and 150 election officials and party polling agents. The FAFEN observers were each accredited by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). The observers used standardized observation forms to record their findings and followed international norms for monitoring elections.
The PP-80 seat fell vacant after incumbent Imtiaz Lali was disqualified on the ground that he was a public servant and therefore ineligible to run for office. The higher judiciary ruled in favor of the petitioner and runners-up in the 2002 general election, Ghulam Mohammad Lali. Ghulam Lali emerged to be the PML candidate for the 2007 by-election and also won the support of Imtiaz Lali after the personal efforts by Punjab Chief Minister Pervez Illahi. Their main rival in the by-election, Ahmed Omer Lali, belonged to the PPPP and is the party’s Tehsil Chiniot president. However, Omer Lali did not win the support of heavyweight PPP leaders in Jhang district.
According to FAFEN observers’ interviews with voters and other stakeholders in the area, a majority of the votes were cast by people whose livelihood depends on the contesting candidates. The candidate fielded by the Pakistan Muslim League is one of the most influential landlords of the area and therefore has immense controls on a considerable number of people who live on his lands and depend on him for living. His main ally, disqualified incumbent Imtiaz Lali, also holds huge land tracts and therefore enjoys a considerable following of the people living and working on his land. Most people who were interviewed by FAFEN observers had no interest in party politics and were voting for the landlords as they thought that was the only option they had. Therefore, the votes polled for Ghulam Lali were not indicative of the support of the PML, but can be qualified as the “bonded vote” – a phenomenon that is rampant in rural, feudal districts of Pakistan.
At many polling stations, local supporters of the candidates, mostly Nazims and councilors, were seen supervising the voting and keeping an eye on the voters even at the time of their stamping the ballots. At some polling stations, observers witnessed ballots papers of voters being stamped by polling agents of the PML candidate or other party activists deputed to oversee the process. The principal of the secrecy of ballot was compromised consistently in the by-election, based on FAFEN observations.
At many polling stations, for example at Hast Thewa, the local Union Nazim Mian Shahid was present throughout the day and ensured that all votes were cast in favour of the PML candidate. Observers also reported that a Punjab government minister accompanied by more than 50 people, many of them armed with weapons, toured many polling stations in Lalian area of the constituency, creating an environment of intimidation for potential voters who might have wanted to vote for the rival PPPP candidate Ahmed Omar Lali. The minister’s entourage also comprised government vehicles bearing green Government of the Punjab registration numbers SGP 39, H22 555, LZR 7003 and LEG 222. The display of weapons was also reported by observers in other parts of the constituency.
Some FAFEN observers were also questioned by armed men supporting the PML candidate, who pressurized the observers to leave the area. Another team of observers was questioned by a plainclothes-policeman and given a soft warning to leave the area. The same team was also pursued by a police van in a bid to intimidate them out of the area where the Punjab government minister was touring.
The presence of women was relatively low in polling stations. Most strikingly, male and particularly female youth did not appear to be involved in the electoral process. This might have been due to their not being registered as voters or lack of national identity cards. In areas covered by polling stations 48 and 49, women were barred from voting.
The violations of election rules and procedures were rampant and reported by all observation teams in different parts of the constituency. Most of these violations were of procedural in nature with serious implications on the election result and committed by the election officials themselves, as most were either not trained to handle their job or disinterested in asserting their authority. Similar laidback attitude of election officials was earlier reported by FAFEN in Karachi, Jamshoro and Bannu by-elections.
Many polling stations commenced polling much later than the scheduled time, according to FAFEN observers. Polling at many polling stations began only after the arrival of a PML representative, who would give a signal to the presiding officers to kick off voting. At most polling stations, election officials did not take any measures to remove promotional posters of the PML candidate and other signs essentially related to his election campaign. The camps of rival parties were allowed to be setup in close vicinity of polling stations and were issuing voting slips bearing party symbols to voters. At one polling station, the poster of the PML candidate was affixed in what was designated as a secrecy area.
Some FAFEN observers also reported that election officials were allowing voting on photocopies of National Identity Cards. In one polling station, a driving license was accepted as a legitimate form of identification for voting. At some polling stations, the election officials started to check the NICs and fill out blank counter-foils on ballot books only after noticing the presence of FAFEN observers.
Most striking to FAFEN observers was the presence of unauthorized people inside the polling stations. Election officials did not seem to have any control over the presence of such people, neither would the police take any action to ensure that only voters enter the station. Some election officials, when asked, said they just wanted to get through the day and would not take the risk of challenging these locally influential people, many of whom also carried arms. Most of these unauthorized people were supervising voting, ensuring that the votes were cast in favor of the PML candidate. It also appeared the local police, who are supposed to remain neutral, were siding with the PML candidate, speaking with his supporters and exchanging notes about the voting and later the count.
According to FAFEN observer reports, election officials were not concerned with protecting people’s right to vote in secrecy. None of the secrecy arrangements at polling stations met reasonable standards for secrecy of the ballot. At many polling stations, the votes were being stamped on the table where the ballot papers were issued. At Pir Punja polling station, women’s votes were being stamped by women supporters of Ghulam Lali. Even the votes of women who did not turn up to vote were being stamped.
ECP procedures for checking the identity cards of all voters, checking their entry in the voters lists and then issuing the ballot paper was also not followed at many polling stations. The voters chit issued by the PML camp was sufficient proof to allow anybody to vote. However, the election officials would improve the implementation of the procedures after seeing FAFEN observers in their polling booths. Most observers reported that the elections officials were not marking voters’ right thumb with indelible ink, citing various excuses. The most common excuse was the inadequate, substandard quantity of ink that was made available.
Some mistakes in procedure were also made by the district ECP officials responsible for organizing the by-election. At some polling stations, polling officials, particularly women, were deputed who were listed as voters in the same polling area where they were performing their duties. Many election officials also complained that the Returning Officer gave them remuneration with deductions of Rs. 75 per official without assigning any reason. The training for election officials that was held in the third week of May was also inadequate. Many election officials said they were only given a handbook without any explanation about the election rules.
FAFEN observers interviews with political party representatives and other stakeholders indicate that the rival political parties did not launch any serious election campaign based on manifestos or policies. Votes were solicited on primordial basis and biradari connections, rather than on political work and programmes. Ghulam Lali, the PML candidate, acknowledged this political reality when told observers in an interview at his election office that the nature of election campaign in rural areas is different than in urban areas and should be understood.
Similarly, the PPP candidate also did not have a sound campaign strategy. There were hardly any rallies, other than the one that was attended in the third week of May by the party’s provincial leadership.
Another indicator of political parties’ disinterest in the by-election was the absence of party polling agents at the polling stations. The PPP failed to depute its polling agents at a majority of polling stations, and many polling stations did not even have agents representing the PML. The few political agents who were present did not have any understanding of the work they were doing, with some being illiterate. At one polling station, the PML deputed a seventeen-year-old agent. Many of the PML polling agents were seen soliciting votes for their candidate inside the polling stations. Some would even stamp the ballots of voters or would accompany them behind the secrecy screens.
FAFEN will make public its detailed report listing violations at specific polling station and recommendations for various stakeholders by June 2, 2007. Meanwhile, FAFEN’s preliminary analysis is that the by-election in Jhang demonstrates again the widespread procedural and security failures that need to be rectified by the ECP in order to ensure the forthcoming general elections have basic legitimacy and express the political will of the people of Pakistan. At the same time the political parties need to engage in political work and policy discussion with people they want to represent, rather than resorting to traditional coercive and persuasive means to woo voters.
About FAFEN: The Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN) is a coalition of thirty leading Pakistani civil society organizations. It was established in 2006 to observe the election process, educate voters, and advocate for electoral and democratic reform.