What does the election of Maia Sandu as President of Moldova mean

Moldova in the last decade or so has been split between three political forces, the pro-Russians led by out-going President Igor Dodon, the pro-Westerners led by new President Maia Sandu and the oligarchs such as Vlad Plahotniuc who have taken so much out of the country. Typically two of these forces will band together to try to see off the third. Sandu became PM when she allied with Dodon to get rid of the oligarchs. But she was outmanoeuvred by the other two less than a year later and before any of her anti-corruption measures could have significant effect. Now Sandu has defeated Dodon (and credit should be given to him for conceding so quickly), apparently with the support of the oligarchs.

Much of the victory is apparently down to the votes of Moldovans living abroad and there are reports of long queues to vote in both Birmingham and London in the UK – and no doubt many other diaspora voting stations as well.

So what does this mean for Moldova and its relationships with the rest of the world:

1. Russia

There have been reports that President Dodon and others in his party used to run their speeches and major policies past the Molodova desk at the Russian MFA. And whilst there has not been much outward sign of Kremlin concern about Moldova, the country is still part of their ‘near abroad’ and a domino which Russia will be concerned does not fall irrevocably to the West. There are many tools in the Russian armory, including formenting civil unrest or undermining the incoming administration. Which, if any, will Russian employ?

2. The West

One outcome of the Nagorno-Karabakh peace deal has been to highlight just how disengaged the countries of the west had become from the conflict and the belligerents. Despite the USA and France supposedly being co-chairs of the Minsk Group, their one attempt at mediation failed and it was Russia which has emerged as the key player. Much the same is the case with Moldova. It is considered a small and insignificant country by much of Europe. Maia Sandu is not just pro-western but has been laying out her requests for co-operation with the EU and other bodies for a number of years. The people of Moldova have put their trust in her and if she cannot deliver then she is unlikely even to make it to the full term of her office. The Moldovan economy is small, so effective levels of support will not cost very much and can focus on key changes which help to stamp out corruption. Sandu and many Moldovans might ultimately want their country to join the EU but that need not be immediately on the table. Some have argued that the new President must make the first move and it is clear that the EU and others cannot give away the farm. But without some early wins in terms of either aid or policy changes, it is unlikely that Sandu will be able to be effective at all. Getting ahead of the oligarchs has to be the key to her presidency.

3. The oligarchs

Vlad Plahotniuc and others may no longer be in day to day control of Moldova but their writ still runs large across the country. They have proved in the last 12 months or so that they can buy up MPs to create a new bloc and it is clear that without their support Sandu would probably not have won the Presidency. What their price will be is going to be key. Plahotniuc is facing legal challenges in the USA and elsewhere which he would no doubt like lifted. He might also believe that he should be free to keep wetting his beak in the country’s meagre economy and will be eying increased western support keenly. The defining moment of Sandu’s presidency is therefore likely to come early. She will either be in hock to the oligarchs or make a decisive break from them.

4. Transnistria

The Trasnistria conflict is very different from Nagorno-Karabakh. If nothing else, there is regular trade across the unofficial border. But it is still a conflict in which the Minsk Group and others have proved powerless to effect a solution. Russia has a major interest in keeping hold of its major arms dump so close to NATO and on Ukraine’s western border and so will be unlikely to sponsor any significant peace deal. Indeed, the last proposal was transliterated into the Ukrainian context as a possible solution in Donbas. There is no silver bullet of a solution, but increased engagement from different players will both persuade the people of the region that they are understood and ensure that further changes to their detriment are less likely to take hold.

The OSCE/ODIHR preliminary statement on the second round of the Presidential election can be found here.

Reading List: 25th March 2020

The EU Council of Ministers has given the go ahead to open accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania. The move had been delayed following an objection from President Macron of France in December.

Opening accession talks is a long way from the countries actually becoming members of the EU, but it is a hopeful sign for countries which have already made substantial economic, social and political reforms with a view to membership.


In an expected move, President Vladimir Putin has announced that the ‘public vote’ on changes to the constitution will be delayed from its 22nd April date due to the coronavirus. It will now be held ‘at some future moment’.

The constitutional reforms were announced by President Putin in January and the original proposal would have prevented him from seeking another term in office after 2024. However an amendment tabled in the Duma proposed to wipe the slate clean and allow Putin (and Dmitry Medvedev, the only other living President) to serve a further two terms.


The UK’s Law Commissions have produced a report on changes to the rules governing elections and campaigning. Among the suggestions they make is for all political adverts to carry the equivalent of the imprint that paper campaigning materials must carry. This sets out who is responsible for the publication.

The commissions also suggest changing the rules on postponement of elections to give returning officers more powers in the event of floods and other natural disasters. They also want to see electoral paperwork made mroe simple.


EU expansion decision will endanger reforms in Western Balkans

The EU has failed to agree to move onto the next step of enlargement as France, the Netherlands and Denmark have blocked the current hopes of North Macedonia and Albania joining. There have been warnings that this move will endanger liberal reforms in those countries as well as lessen the chances of a full peace settlement between Serbia and Kosovo.

The issue was discussed as part of this week’s EU Council meeting in Brussels. It has been reported that Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte was happier to see progress made in the case of North Macedonia but he, as well as French President Emmanuel Macron, see EU structural reforms as a higher priority and so blocked further discussions before the Western Balkans summit in Zagreb next May.

This decision will have a number of knock-on effects. In North Macedonia, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev has a staked a lot on achieving agreements with Greece that resulted in changes including that of the name of his country. That, together with expensive constitutional, economic and political reforms, were all geared towards starting the long process of EU membership. Without the hope of membership, Zaev’s credibility with his electorate will take a tumble and the reform process will likely stall.

Albania has a constitutional crisis of its own already and the country was seen to be less ready for EU membership, but the reform process had been started and will almost certainly now end, significantly endangering anti-corruption efforts and action against organised crime.

The EU decision may also affect the Kosovo/Serbia debate. Both countries had expressed a desire to join the EU, albeit on a slower track than Albania and North Macedonia. One of the key requirements for their membership to progress would be a lasting peace deal and border resolution. There will now be less incentive to make this happen.

And whilst the EU and its member states will continue to be important partners for the countries of the Western Balkans, this decision will leave the door open for stronger ties with other major players. Russia is a traditional ally for Serbia and has major interests in the whole region. Likewise, China is investing heavily as part of its Belt and Road Initiative having put funding into Serbian railways and leasing the port of Piraeus in Greece among other projects.

In reality, the timetable towards EU enlargement may be relatively unaffected by this decision. Completing the different chapters of the acquis communautaire is a lengthy process and could have been stalled in a more diplomatic way had member states wished. The negative effects could have been avoided had North Macedonia alone been given the green light with a warning that formal accession would only take place after the organisation’s structural reforms had been completed. This choice, however, raises major concerns over the credibility of any further enlargement.


UPDATE (21st October 2019): North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, apparently furious at the decision of the EU, has called snap elections to allow his country “to decide what path it wants to follow”. The election is set to take place on April 12th 2020.

Reading List – 7th October 2019

– Democrats must act now to deter foreign interference in the 2020 election

Thomas Wright argues that President Trump is likely to allow or even solicit foreign interference in the next US election, but that Democrat candidates can head it off with well thought through deterrence. He believes that a threat that has a 40% chance of being implemented is enough to see off Russia or other states who might wish to interfere.

– State-building myths in Central Asia

Francisco Olmos looks at how the leaders of the new central asian republics turned to history to create a raison d’être. Several chose to hark back to historic conquerors and tribal leaders, real or mythological. But one centred its narrative on its first post-Soviet leader and another initially sought to avoid history in order to avoid threatening its Russian majority.

– Boosting the Role of National Parliaments in EU Democracy

Agata Gostyńska-Jakubowska of the Center for European Reform suggests that the EU should give greater powers to national parliaments in order to boost public understanding and support. But with many national legislatures less popular than the EU, will this help in those states? And with 28 (or 27) member states, is there any way for suggestions to be made that is not horribly complex and messy?


Social media platforms must do more to prevent election attacks

It’s pretty clear that social media attacks have a real potential to affect not just elections, but political life in general. That’s why Facebook’s ‘two steps forward, one step back’ strategy is so disappointing. They – with their subsidiary WhatsApp – are the biggest players in the social media market and they have a responsibility to act. Only when platforms are completely transparent will election authorities be able to act and we, the voters, will have confidence that our elections are not being distorted.

How election regulations work

Different countries have different laws regarding elections and this applies to online campaigning and social media too. In most countries, the principle means of regulating election campaigns is via spending limits – although there may be a range of other controls. Parties and candidates are required to submit a spending return after the election (and sometimes interim returns mid-campaign). They may have to open a dedicated bank account and there may be limits as to who can contribute and how much.

Many countries view day to day non-commercial uses of social media as being essentially free and so they do not fall under the scope of election expenses. Even websites are often viewed as being low cost and are an under-regulated form of influencing votes.

Such ‘free’ uses include:

  • Setting up a Facebook page to promote a candidate or party and gather ‘likes’ for them. People who have ‘liked’ the candidate can then be sent messages and other information. Likers and other users can view live streams of campaign events
  • A twitter account to promote the candidate, to encourage retweets and to retweet others (endorsements, party leaders etc)
  • A WhatsApp account to create groups and to share information among those groups and encourage other group members to forward the information to others.
  • An Instagram account to share images and engage in conversation with followers and others.

There are, of course, many other social media platforms, but they broadly fall into one of these basic use profiles.

Increasingly, social media is also being used to host paid-for advertisements of a political or campaign nature during elections. These may come from parties or candidates themselves and can be positive or negative in nature. Or they can come from third party actors within the country or from outside. Different rules apply in each country with some countries permitting third party groups to spend money campaigning during an election either for or against a candidate or on the basis of issues. And whilst some countries permit funding by citizens living overseas, broadly speaking no country permits out of country election spending by non-citizens.

Why parties use social media

The advantage of social media advertising is that it allows an advert to be targeted at a specific audience. To take Facebook, the company knows enough about its users that it can sell advertising so that it reaches a very specific group. It is easy to target, for example, women aged 24-35 in a particular city. And, the company knows much more than simple demographics. They also know about an individual’s likes and dislikes (quite literally because of the ‘like’ buttons clicked). So Facebook can sell advertising enabling very precise targeting. And because the user data is not shared with the advertiser – they only receive personal information if the recipient of the advert chooses to share it with them – this practice is seen as compliant with data laws around the world.

The attractiveness of social media to parties, candidates and other political campaigners is obvious and not a bad thing. Lots of voters complain they don’t know enough about what politicians or parties stand for, so this means of communication should help. But a platform that allows genuine communication is also open to fake news and outside interference.

unnamedA disclaimer here: As a campaign manager in the 2016 EU referendum, I commissioned and paid for Facebook adverts on a number of occasions. I was able to define the audience I wanted to see these and I thought they were good value for money. I didn’t of course, have access to the private data that the platform used to target that audience. Our advert spending was properly declared to the Electoral Commission.

The Cambridge Analytica/AIQ case is something different. In this case data was harvested for one reason and then given or sold to political advertisers for completely different reasons. Facebook has been shown to have known about this illegal transfer to the extent that they have been fined the maximum amount permitted in the UK. But even if the company acted illegally in that case, it does not currently inhibit the legal act of selling advertising by Facebook and other social media companies.

Recent problems

There have been a number of scandals to hit election related social media in recent years:

  • During the 2016 UK referendum on membership of the EU the Electoral Commission found that the Vote Leave campaign illegally co-ordinated their campaigning with BeLeave by passing on funding which was spent on social media advertising;
  • During the 2016 US Presidential Election, it is alleged that Russia (and possibly China) sought to interfere with the contest through the promotion of fake news and the use of ‘bots’ to spread false information. (Other claims about Russian interference have been made but they don’t come under the heading of social media;
  • During the 2018 Brazillian Presidential Election, it is claimed that fake news aimed at both candidsates has been spread via WhatsApp groups;
  • During the 2018 Macedonian name referendum, it is alleged that many hundreds of websites, Facebook groups and other means were created from outside the country to promote a boycott and therefore to lessen the credibility of the outcome which was expected to be a Yes vote;
  • Allegations of foreign interference have also been made about French, German and other elections in Europe and elsewhere.

In addition to social media, voters may see election related content on news sites, gossip sites, blogs and so on. Frequently, these sites encourage interaction via comments and these are often un-moderated. Whilst parties can campaigns will endeavour to push messages out via these sites – as they do through mainstream media – the comments sections are often the territory where activists and others will seek to promote points of view and stories which are less factually robust.

So what action have Facebook taken?

They have made two significant changes which are broadly positive. They have required that every political advert carries a form of identification so the viewer can see who produced it. However this ‘imprint’ is often not as clear as one might like, providing little real clue as to who is behind it. A recent example are adverts urging constituents to contact therir MP and ‘stand up for Brexit’. A number or groups have produced these and some are clear whilst others are far from.

Second, Facebook will periodically release the details who who has spent what on political advertising. That’s great, but it won’t be linked to specific content.

They have also announced a ‘war room’ to tackle fake news during there EU elections.

On the downside, Facebook appears to have restricted the ability of plug-ins to monitor advertising content. This has hit the Who Targets Me platform even though the use of plug-ins in that case is entirely consensual. So one of the prime investigators of shady political advertising is no longer able to undertake its investigations.

And, as I’ve previously written, WhatsApp in India has restricted the ability for users to forward messages. However this make the spreading of fake news slightly harder rather than eliminating the possibility entirely.

Has fake news swung elections?

It’s impossible to tell. Governments do not like to admit that they might have come to power or their course of action might have been set via a referendum that was fundamentally flawed. And courts and election commissions have been very reticent in declaring a ballot to be void. That is not to say that it has never happened, but these remedies do not appear to be the most reliable.

Whilst in the past a second country (or people based in a second country) might have sought to influence the conduct of an election by means of radio broadcasts and the like, the advent of the internet, and particularly of social media, has made it much easier to seek to influence an election in another country whether through ‘fake news’ or truthful campaigning.

There is also a question as to how much a vote is actually changed by a piece of fake news. In most cases it appears that a voter is likely to cast their ballot in a certain way and the information they choose to listen to or accept (whether fake or otherwise) simply confirms their choice.

And what constitutes ‘fake’? An outright lie or doctored photo such as the one claiming that the former Brazillian President Dilma was a prodigy of Fidel Castro is simple to categorise. But the ‘£350m for the NHS’ slogan on the side of the Vote Leave bus during the UK’s referendum is not so obviously fake. Had politicians decided to do so, they could have made this come true, regardless of the impact of Brexit on public finances. It is fair to point out that the pretext of the claim – that Brexit would make the UK better off – is probably not the case, but we are then into a political debate – something that should not be policed in a heavy handed fashion, if at all.

However, it does seem probable that there have been significant numbers of votes affected by fake news or international campaigning in various elections and that this is something that should be taken seriously. Respected NGOs in various countries have raised concerns about this issue.

Next steps

Governments across the world have been reluctant even to address this issue. But some have and they have chosen different approaches. In the UK, ministers have said that recognising and ignoring fake news is the responsible of the individual. They don’t propose to take any action to stamp it out. France, however, has indicated that it might try to set up an official body to make rulings. The difficulty here is that such rulings are likely to come after the horse has well and truly bolted.

What seems logical as a first step is for platforms such as Facebook to be much more open about who is funding political advertising and what it says to whom. It is not necessarily for social media executives to do the work of electoral commissions, but they need to enable the official regulators to do their jobs properly. If an individual, organisation or even foreign country is trying to influence elections then this should be clear and, if it is against the law, then action should be taken. But until the social media platforms come clean, this can’t happen.

UK may be forced to hold MEP elections if Theresa May’s deal defeated

The Guardian leads on the obvious – that when Theresa May’s Brexit deal gets voted down on Tuesday there will need to be an extension of time to allow the UK to come up with an alternative plan. The current Article 50 declaration runs out of time on March 30th and, if there is no agreement by then, the default option of a no deal Brexit automatically kicks in. Whilst it seemed like a good idea at the time to hold the Government’s (and MP’s) feet to the fire, it is now the general view that a no deal Brexit should only be an avenue taken by choice, not by absence of any positive decision to the contrary.

So if there is an extension (a period of a few months has been mentioned) the next real deadline for the EU is when new MEPs meet for the first time at the beginning of July. And if the UK is still a member, even if only temporarily, then it will need MEPs.

Theresa May might well believe that she can use a couple of extra months to get a slightly better deal. But will that be enough to get sufficient MPs on board or will we simply be kicking the can down the road? If May cannot win on Tuesday then she will have a maximum of one more chance at securing Parliamentary approval. She will want to make sure she has every chance to get it right this time. A delay of only two months won’t guarantee that, whilst six months or so just might.

But this is, fundamentally a blog about elections, so let’s return to that – and the thorny problem of the British MEPs.

The current batch expect to be out of a job after the end of March. And, as suggested above, an extension of a couple of months won’t be a problem logistically. But what if the UK remains a part of the EU – for whatever reason – after that.

There are a number of options:

  • The UK could do without any MEP representation
  • The current MEPs could carry on
  • New MEPs could be appointed rather than elected
  • New elections could be held

None of these options is exactly easy. For a member state to do without MEPs goes against the whole point of the EU. If the UK government could assert that it would only be for a few weeks then they might have some logic when the cost of new elections is considered. But I’m guessing this would not be looked upon favourably by the EU at a time when May will need as many favours as possible. I would also expect this option to lead to a court case from Remain supporters.

Keeping the current MEPs in post or appointing replacements is another short term solution, but is anti-democratic. It may also antagonise other countries and lead to court cases.

The only solution which is unlikely to lead to court cases and opposition within the EU is for the UK to fall into line with the other 27 countries and hold elections at the end of May. The Prime Minister will, of course, not even countenance this option until after she has been defeated on Tuesday. But after that she will be forced to. Her first instinct will be to say that new elections won’t be needed as she is sure that the deal will be done in time – whatever that deal is. But how much confidence will there be behind such a statement? But even a quick deal almost certainly means  a period after the beginning of July when the UK is part of the EU and will therefore need to have MEPs. 

That’s the technical side of things. What about the politics?

Neither of the two largest parties will want European Parliament elections. For both the Conservatives and Labour it will force them to have a clear position on EU membership that is out of step with most party members and voters. Jeremy Corbyn has been focussed exclusively on calling for a general election because he knows he can win on issues such as the NHS and jobs but that his position on the EU is unpopular among many Labour supporters. On the Conservative side, most members favour as hard a Brexit as possible and won’t be happy to campaign for new MEPs on the basis of the May deal.

The Lib Dems, SNP, Greens and Plaid Cymru should be much more in favour of these elections. But campaigns cost money to parties as well as the Exchequer and the smaller parties may be hesitant about a full scale effort when those elected may well only be in place for a short while and a 2019 general election is also possible.

Perhaps the only party that will be happy about these elections would be UKIP. A party that has lost almost all of its media coverage in recent months would suddenly become relevant again, even if it loses MEPs compared with the last elections as the group has seen almost half of their MEPs defect. Re-engaging with the media, gaining vote share at a time when a general election is possible, electing new and loyal MEPs – UKIP will love it.

But what of the party’s erstwhile leader Nigel Farage? The ‘Face of Brexit’ has announced that he is no longer a member of UKIP after leader Gerard Batten appointed Stephen Yaxley-Lennon as an advisor. Surely, if there are to be new MEP elections then he will want to be part of it, especially as he is likely to be squeezed from most media if he is not a contestant. Talk of Farage joining the Conservatives has been doing the rounds, but that unlikely scenario becomes an impossibility if he has to then speak in support of something other than the hardest Brexit. So does he swallow his pride and rejoin UKIP or start a new party? My bet would be on the latter and this is likely to have the consequence of dragging some current Conservatives along with him.

So whilst the law might require Theresa May to hold elections to the European Parliament in May, there is no upside for her in such a move. She will fight the proposal with all her might even if the best chance of her securing something approximating to her deal is an extension of six months or so. Whether it is a court case or the ticking of the clock into the new European Parliament era, my prediction is that the UK will be forced to hold MEP elections either on or after the due date.

UPDATE: Nigel Farage has said he will indeed be looking for a new party and will stand if the UK participates in MEP elections this year.

Election Observation – how to get involved

I sometimes get asked about election observation missions – who organises them and how to get involved. So here is a short guide – mainly from a UK point of view, but also useful for those from other countries, I hope.

There are a number of organisations which run election observation missions. Some are domestic groups (ie they observe in their home country) and some are international groups. The major international groups include:

  • the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) which consists of 57 member countries and organises missions via its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR);
  • The EU (not just the 27 member states. Canada, Norway and Switzerland are among those who join in with missions and UK ministers have told me that they are minded to continue to participate in some missions after the final Brexit deal is signed, but we are on hiatus at the moment);
  • IRI and NDI which are US non-governmental organisations;
  • The African Union;
  • The Organisation of American States;
  • The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS – many of the former Soviet Union states)
  • The Carter Center, a foundation set up by former US President Jimmy Carter.

In general, all groups organise missions in a similar way. They will have a core team of experts which may include people skilled in political affairs, in election systems and procedures, in election law, in gender and national minorities issues, in media, campaign finance and so on.

In addition to this, there will usually be a group of long term observers (LTOs). These are experienced observers who are deployed in teams of two across the country. Each team will have a defined region to cover and their job is to observe the political campaign and the preparations by local election administrators, NGOs, media and so on.

Most missions also have short term observers (STOs) whose task is to observe polling day itself by going from polling station to polling station and seeing what is happening there. They will also watch the count and tabulation process. STOs also work in pairs and mix nationalities in each team. Where possible, each team will have a man and a woman and a mixture of experience. 

Depending on which organisation and what country, missions might be larger or smaller. A big OSCE mission might have as many as 90 LTOs and 700 STOs. A small mission might just be a group of experts looking at a few key aspects of the process.

And yes, observation takes place in just about every country including the UK. The aim is to see whether a country has laws and processes in place that meet the internationally agreed standards to which they have signed up AND to see whether the conduct of the individual election meets the requirements of the law. People often ask whether a particular election was ‘free and fair’ and, whilst that is good shorthand, reports are always more nuanced than this. Even a positive report (such as that on the recent Armenian Parliamentary election) will contain suggestions for the future.

Each mission has an offical working language. At present, these are limited to English for OSCE missions and some EU, plus French, Spanish and Portuguese for other EU missions. If you want to apply for a mission where the language is not your native one then you will be asked to undertake a language test and the expected standard is C1 – ie complete fluency.

A key requirement for all observers is to be objective and neutral. Just because something is being done in a different way from your home country, doesn’t mean it is wrong. There is an internationally agreed code of conduct and standard for observation which all of the reputable organisations are signed up to. One of the requirements is not to have any conflicts of interest such as declared support for one of the participating candidates or parties.

From the UK perspective, both LTOs and STOs are seconded. In other words they are chosen by the Foreign Office and proposed to OSCE or the EU. The UK contracts out the management to two ‘focal points’:

British East West Centre (BEWC)

Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD)

A third focal point – the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE) has recently removed itself from the contractor list. Their work was carried out by David Kidger Associates and it may be that he becomes a focal point in his own right in the future.

WFD runs a database and prospective observers can register to receive emails as and when a mission is announced. BEWC advertises missions on its website. For both EU and OSCE missions, observers also need to be registered on their system.

As for money, international election observation (outside of core team roles) is not going to provide enough for a living, but you will not be out of pocket for individual missions either. UK observers receive a per diem to cover accommodation and food and this amount depends on the country where you are working. It can range from about €100 to €240 per day. Any per diem that you don’t spend can be kept. You will also receive money to pay for drivers and interpreters (who are chosen for you), fuel and so on and any of this money that is not spent must be returned. Flights and insurance is also taken care of. On top of this, LTOs (but not STOs) receive a small wage.

That’s basically it. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to get in touch – alexfolkes@gmail.com 

EU EOM Final Report on the 25 July general elections in Pakistan

The final report of the EU’s election observation mission to Pakistan – a mission for which I was a long-term observer – has now been published. You can read the summary below and find the full report here.

The European Union deployed an Election Observation Mission (EU EOM) to observe the 25 July general elections after a mission was welcomed by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). The EU EOM was present in Pakistan from 24 June 2018 until 23 August 2018. The mission’s mandate was to observe all aspects of the electoral process and assess the extent to which the elections complied with international commitments for elections, as well as with national legislation.

The EU EOM encountered significant challenges and difficulties before and during its deployment to Pakistan. Unlike in previous elections, it faced unprecedented delay in the deployment of the whole mission. Due to a series of bureaucratic delays, including with issuing visas and accreditations, EU long-term observers arrived in Pakistan later than planned and were deployed to districts only one week, sometimes less, before election day. This had repercussions on the mission’s ability to observe and thoroughly assess some fundamental areas of the electoral process. These included the candidate nomination process and candidacy complaints and appeals, the campaign environment, as well as the work of the election administration at local level. Additionally, despite constant efforts, meetings with two main interlocutors, the ECP and the judiciary and the various courts, were very limited or did not take place at all. The non- extension of visas for members of the core team led to an earlier than planned departure of the EU EOM from Pakistan. As a result, the final stages of the electoral process were not observed.

The 25 July 2018 general elections followed, for the first time in Pakistan’s history, two terms of continuous civilian rule with two elected legislatures completing their terms. The elections took place against a background of allegations of interference in the electoral process by the military-led establishment and the role of the judiciary as a political actor.

An increase in violent attacks and threats targeting political parties, party leaders, candidates and election officials severely affected the campaign environment in the two weeks before election day. The bomb attack during a Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) campaign event in Mastung district, Balochistan, killed 149 people and injured over 200. Several other candidates and hundreds of campaigners, party workers and citizens were injured. An attack near a polling station in Quetta on election day killed over 30 people, including children.

Pakistan has adopted key international treaties applicable to elections. The legal framework provides an adequate basis for the conduct of elections in line with international standards. The Constitution largely provides for fundamental freedoms, including freedom of speech, information, movement, association and assembly, as well as the right to vote and to stand. Fundamental rights are subject to “any reasonable restriction imposed by law” and therefore vulnerable to arbitrary implementation. Freedom of expression and the right to stand may be curtailed by vague, moral and ethical requirements. Blasphemy laws are problematic for the effective exercise of freedom of speech, while legal restrictions on the right of assembly were, on occasion, applied in an excessive manner during the 2018 elections.

After the 2013 elections, Pakistan embarked on an ambitious process of electoral reform. The Elections Act 2017, which followed an extended period of consultations, repealed eight pieces of legislation, creating a single unified law. Overall, ECP powers were strengthened and its orders were given the same weight as High Court orders. It was also empowered to make rules, clarify the law and, if necessary, make provisions where there were gaps. These powers gave new space to the ECP to manage the election process more independently. Despite the reforms, however, there are still gaps in various aspects of the law. The processes by which political parties choose candidates are inadequate. Candidates and parties benefit from insufficient campaign finance regulation, resulting in an uneven playing field. The law does not specify a start date for the campaign period. This entails uncertainty for the reporting period for campaign expenses and in relation to the overall enforcement of campaign rules.


The National Assembly comprises 342 members, with 272 members directly elected to general seats, 60 members elected to seats reserved for women and 10 members to seats reserved for non-Muslims. All members serve a five-year term. The 272 members are directly elected in single-member constituencies under the first-past-the-post system. The members of the four provincial assemblies are elected in the same way. Members for reserved seats are elected under an indirect proportional representation closed party-list system. These seats are allotted to political parties based on their electoral performance in the general seats. The reserved seats for women are distributed to parties in proportion to the number of general seats won in each of the provinces. Non-Muslim reserved seats are allocated in proportion to the number of general seats won by parties nationally. The recent constituency delimitation did not change the total number of constituencies, only the number of seats for each province.

The Election Commission of Pakistan is the constitutional body with the authority and responsibility to conduct elections. The Chief Election Commissioner and the four members of the ECP are appointed by the president based on nominations made by a parliamentary committee. The mandate of the ECP is to organise elections including the preparation of electoral rolls and the delimitation of constituencies. The ECP enjoys increased administrative and financial authority. The ECP met key operational deadlines. Technical aspects of the election process were generally well-administered.

The ECP made limited efforts to improve its transparency and accountability during the electoral period. The lack of regular communication with civil society and political parties, as well as timely information to voters on key stages of the electoral process, such as the failure to announce provisional results on time, increased the level of distrust between stakeholders and the ECP, and damaged the institution’s reputation.

Overall, the ECP’s voter education was insufficient and it was not implemented in a timely manner. Important information on voting procedures and prohibited actions inside polling stations was not well communicated. Voter education was not tailored for any vulnerable group, including persons with disabilities. Civil society organisations and media tried to fill in this gap.

The right to vote is broadly vindicated by an inclusive system for the preparation of the electoral rolls, although large disparities remain between male and female voters, while disadvantaged groups face hurdles registering. Although steps were taken to ensure participation of minorities in the electoral process, the obstacles faced by the Ahmadi community remain unchanged. They are still registered on a separate electoral roll, contrary to constitutional provisions on the equality of citizens and against Pakistan’s international commitments. There were 105,955,407 voters on the final electoral roll, an increase of 23 per cent from 2013. The gap between the male and female electorate was slightly reduced, with women making up 44 per cent of the electorate.

Candidacy requirements are addressed in detail in the Constitution, but include qualifications that are vague and subjective. The lack of implementation guidelines resulted in inconsistent candidate scrutiny. Ninety- five of 121 registered parties participated in the elections. There were 11,855 candidates contesting the elections (3,459 for the National Assembly and 8,396 for provincial assemblies), of which 55 per cent stood as independents. Political parties nominated 172 women and 44 non-Muslims for reserved seats in the National Assembly, and 386 women and 113 non-Muslims to the provincial assemblies. Eight per cent of the overall number of candidates for both National and provincial assembly elections represented extremist parties.

Despite a deteriorating security situation, the campaign was competitive with party leaders travelling across the country. However, some restrictions were imposed for security reasons, thus limiting public assembly. The restrictions imposed due to the violent attacks contradict the principles of democratic elections; they somewhat affected freedom of campaigning; and, to some extent, did not allow voters and candidates to take part in elections free from fear and intimidation. Notwithstanding several legal provisions aiming to ensure a level playing field, there was a notable lack in equality of opportunity. The campaign was often dominated by candidates with large political appeal and financial means. Incomplete campaign spending provisions, including a lack of spending oversight and controls on political parties, as well as an undefined campaign period further undermined candidates’ equal opportunity to campaign. The escalation in violence two weeks before election day limited candidates’ direct engagement with voters and made more prominent the role of the media in the campaign. Social media was used extensively, with the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) enjoying the greatest online presence.

At first glance, Pakistan’s media appears vibrant, seemingly offering a platform for a free and pluralistic exchange of ideas. Comprehensive analysis of the media’s output, however, reveals that editorial policies were carefully calibrated to downplay issues relating to the army, state security structures and the judiciary. Concerted efforts to stifle the reporting environment were observed, and included intimidating phone calls to senior editors, the disruption and hindrance of the distribution of broadcast and print outlets, and harassment of individual journalists. Most of the content restrictions that affected election coverage stem from the Constitution. Article 19 subjects freedom of expression to “any reasonable restrictions imposed by law”, which diverges from international standards. Excessive content limitations, citing security, religious and moral concerns, are scattered throughout the legal framework for media, resulting in a catalogue of issues on which media cannot report.

Media coverage of the elections, as monitored by the EU EOM, was extensive, but devoid of journalistic, non-partisan scrutiny. There was no level playing field for electoral contestants, including on the state-run TV. The PTI, the PML-N and the PPP joint share of exposure in all media was 81 per cent, including within the news on electoral matters. Overall the PML-N was the most featured party. However, up to two-thirds of its coverage was negative in tone, including on court cases against the party leadership and on prominent defectors. The coverage of the PPP was mostly neutral or positive, and predominantly afforded to the party’s campaign activities. The PTI was also featured in either a neutral or positive manner. The PTI leader was by far the most quoted political figure across the media landscape, which was particularly beneficial in such a divisive campaign environment.

The system for resolving electoral disputes is largely a judicial model, with judges of various courts involved at different stages. ECP orders also have the same weight as High Court rulings. There was considerable uncertainty over the resolution of electoral disputes, with a high number of petitions to the Supreme and High Courts. There was a lack of transparency regarding ECP decisions on electoral disputes, as well as late changes in the make-up of panels for ECP dispute hearings.

The Constitution guarantees the equality of all citizens and provides for the full participation of women in national life. The Elections Act foresees the cancellation of elections in constituencies where female turnout is less than ten per cent. However, the ECP annulled elections only in one provincial assembly constituency, but not in other constituencies where female turnout was just under 10 per cent. Each political party had to nominate at least five per cent of women candidates for general seats. Seven of 95 political parties failed to fulfil this requirement. Only eight of 172 women candidates were elected to general seats in the National Assembly compared to nine in 2013 and 16 in 2008.

Despite positive measures taken by the ECP and civil society organisations, minorities, persons with disabilities and transgender people are still hampered from fully participating in the electoral process. EU observers concluded that two-thirds of the polling stations observed on election day were accessible to persons with reduced mobility but that only 12 per cent granted independent access with ramps or additional measures. Transgender candidates confronted several obstacles, including harassment and threats, throughout the electoral process.


The Elections Act 2017 gives the ECP powers to allow citizen observers and international observers to observe the electoral process. However, it is at the discretion of the ECP as to whether it actually allows groups to observe, as well as the extent of access it provides. Due to a lack of clear instructions on accreditation procedures, national and international observers faced difficulties with accreditation. Observers were also hindered by the Code of Conduct for Security Officials which empowered security personnel to allow accredited observers and media stay at a polling station only for a brief period of time.

The Trust for Democratic Education and Accountability-Free and Fair Election Network (TDEA/FAFEN) trained over 19,000 observers for election day observation. TDEA/FAFEN’s preliminary report on election day, based on the reports of 9,699 observers from 37,001 polling stations, assessed the process as positive. Overall, TDEA/FAFEN observation in 2018 was less visible in the field than in 2013. In addition, there were several civil society organisations observing the participation of women, persons with disabilities and transgender people.

Election day was orderly, despite two attacks on polling stations in Balochistan where over 30 people were killed and others injured. EU observers assessed positively opening procedures at polling stations observed. Voting was assessed as well-conducted and transparent in most of the 446 polling stations observed. The ECP allowed the deployment of 370,000 army personnel inside as well as outside polling stations and increased their powers, including the provision of a parallel structure to report irregularities if the presiding officer did not take action. EU observers noted army personnel inside all polling stations observed, and reported a few cases where they interfered in polling proceedings or directed party agents to stay outside the polling stations. Counting was sometimes problematic, with EU observers assessing as positive the counting process in only two thirds of observations. EU observers assessed as positive the intake process, tabulation and the consolidation of results process in 90 per cent of observations, while in eight cases they were denied access to observe the consolidation process. Overall, technical preparations and logistical arrangements were sufficient for an orderly voting process. However, the count, transmission and tabulation of results lacked transparency, leaving room for allegations of electoral malpractices.

The ECP did not meet the legal deadline for announcing provisional results by 02:00 on 26 July. On election night, the Results Transmission System (RTS) failed during the submission of results from polling stations and the ECP had to stop using it. Following widespread criticism, the ECP called for an enquiry commission to identify reasons for RTS failure.

The immediate post-election day environment was marred by allegations from the majority of political parties of widespread rigging and electoral malpractices influencing the electoral process, and demonstrations across the country.

The ECP announced the final results on 7 August, within the 14-day legal deadline. On 7 and 8 August, consolidated result forms for all constituencies were published on the ECP’s website. For the first time, as a result of public pressure and criticism from political parties and civil society organisations, result forms from all polling stations were also posted on the ECP’s website. The official final turnout was reported at 52 per cent for the National Assembly elections and at 53 per cent for the provincial assembly elections. The percentage of invalid votes was registered at 3.1 per cent for the National Assembly and 3.3 per cent for the provincial assembly elections. Eleven political parties, one coalition of parties and four independent candidates shared the 342 National Assembly seats, including the 60 reserved seats for women and the 10 seats for non-Muslims. The 728 seats of the four provincial assemblies were shared among fifteen political parties, one coalition of parties and eleven independent candidates.

The EU EOM 2013 offered 50 recommendations for improving the framework for elections. Ahead of the 2018 general elections, five of these recommendations had been completely implemented. A further 33 recommendations were also reflected, at least partially, in the Elections Act 2017.


The EU EOM 2018 offers 30 recommendations for future electoral reform based on observations, analysis and extensive discussion with a range of stakeholders. It has eight priority recommendations:

  1. Establish legal certainty for the right to stand. Review the Constitution and Elections Act so that any restrictions imposed are not subject to vague, moral and arbitrary criteria and, in practice, align with international standards. The ECP should establish guidelines for consistent implementation of candidacy requirements.
  2. Revise the Elections Act, Election Rules and Codes of Conduct to ensure robust mechanisms for transparency. These would include specific timeframes for, and the manner of, dissemination of information of public interest, including online. Enforceable sanctions for non-compliance should also be adopted.
  3. To contribute to public confidence in the ECP, the Commission should introduce a range of measures to increase transparency and inclusiveness. These would include the timely publication of procedures, decisions and other information of public interest, and regular meetings and consultations on electoral issues with key stakeholders, including civil society.
  4. Guarantee civilian ownership of the conduct of elections. The presence of security forces, including the army, should be limited to outside polling stations and should not interfere in the election process.
  5. Review the legal framework for media, including for online content, to ensure compliance with international standards for freedom of expression, and repeal undue restrictions on media’s output. Consider decriminalisation of defamation, clarify the definition of blasphemy and set out unambiguous criteria for blocking online content.
  6. Adopt affirmative measures to foster the representation of women contesting general seats. Double the current five per cent mandatory registration of women candidates in political parties. Consistently implement sanctions for non-compliance. Ensure strict adherence to the legal threshold for female voter turnout.
  7. Adopt a unified electoral roll by removing the requirement for any supplementary list of voters, so that all citizens can be registered to vote on an equal basis in accordance with international standards.
  8. Establish in law the right to national and international observation, ensuring full access for observers, including media, to all stages of the electoral process. Develop and adopt simple and transparent requirements for accreditation to be published well in advance of elections. To ensure scrutiny of the process, the ECP should facilitate the participation of civil society organisations in election observation.