This opinion piece in Dawn, Pakistan’s leading English language newspaper, is an interesting contribution to the debate about Imran Khan’s new government. I was a long-term observer during the election in the summer on behalf of the EU. You can read more about that election and the EU report here.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.