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Crisis management at its worst: ECP chief’s presser and the RTS conundrum

On July 25th, millions of Pakistanis exercised their right to vote in the country’s general elections. The polling process began early morning and lasted till 6pm, after which, the counting process of the votes cast took place.

According to preliminary and unofficial polling results, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Pakistan Movement for Justice or PTI) led by Imran Khan had bagged the most number of seats for the National Assembly, followed by the former ruling party the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) at the second spot, and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) at third place. Khan’s party will likely have to make the winning independent candidates join its fold along with making alliances with one or two more parties in order to form government to rule the country for a term of five years.

This was the first time that the Election Commission had incorporated the Results Transmission System (RTS) in the post-polling process. Using the RTS, the presiding officers of a particular polling station would be able to forward their results to the returning officers, who happen to be in-charge of certain localities, and then the combined results of different localities would be sent to the ECP to be issued by the state institution as ‘verified and complete’.

Unfortunately, on this particular occasion, relying on technology seemed to have backfired as the RTS is said to have ceased working properly mainly due to the excess of data uploaded which the system was unable to handle, thus the ECP was unable to receive polling results and was therefore in no position to issue ‘verified and complete’ polling results.

At first, the ECP did not communicate the issue with the media hence speculations were able to secure ground as the delay in issuing verified results was being linked with ill-will, that the results were perhaps being manipulated. At the end, it came down to which political party one backed: if you happen to be a Khan supporter, you wouldn’t care much as the unofficial results (which are almost accurate enough to be soon declared as official once ECP issues them) was clearly indicating the PTI winning. But if you support some other party, you would agree to the gurus on screen who would be analyzing the events as they unfold (or take forever to unfold in this case) and associate the delay with something fishy going on behind the scenes.

However, the urge to pen this opinionated piece came after witnessing the Chief Election Commissioner Sardar Muhammad Raza’s press conference along with ECP Secretary Babar Yaqoob, and other top-officials of the institution, which took place at 4am PST, and realizing how magnificently he and his institution failed to deal with the crisis they faced. As a student of Public Relations (PR), I have also come across the dimension of crisis management and the different strategies this field incorporates. After viewing Raza’s presser and the analysis that followed on different channels based on his revelations, I somehow realized that the Chief Election Commissioner and his institution either did not have a crisis management plan to begin with, or it had failed to work altogether. In the paragraphs below, I shall try to elaborate the reasons that made me believe so, and the likely alternatives to ECP’s crisis response strategy (if they ever had any, that is).

  1. The pre-crisis phase

Technology is always a plus. There is no reason why it should not be utilized in simplifying complicated processes, for saving lots of time, and for putting lesser effort in order to get the job done.

However, technology may always not be reliable. The RTS had been tested only twice in the past: once for the Peshawar-based NA-4 constituency elections, and the second one for the Sindh Assembly-based PS-114 by-elections in Karachi. The National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA), the state institution involved in the making of the data collection and dissemination system, was confident that, following the success of the system in dealing with these two elections, RTS was powerful enough to handle large data it shall receive during general elections.

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Unfortunately, the system was unable to meet expectations, and did not perform on the big day. This means that ECP should have had a contingency plan to tackle such a situation. In his press conference, Raza admitted that the delay was due to technical glitches, and that the presiding officers of the polling stations had to be transported to the offices of the returning officers of different localities, so that the latter may gather data and somehow forward it to ECP after verification.

Certainly, this seems to be a rather unimpressive strategy in order to deal with such a situation: it is time-consuming, it is not so secure, and it is laborious, to name a few drawbacks. The ECP could have used a different form of technology in order to deal with a flaw that had erupted due to technology. Another secure yet basic online platform could have been utilized for storing and forwarding information in case things would go wrong with the RTS. As sharing results from all over the country at once would have certainly placed the system under quite some strain, province-wise results could have been gathered with the idea of one province at a time in order to save the system from information overload (district-wise data could have also worked if province-wise information seems a bit too much to handle).

Media analysts also claimed that a large number of presiding officers and returning officers were not familiar or well-trained in using the RTS, hence they were having troubles with utilizing the technology in the proper way. If true, these claims reflect the loopholes in the management capabilities of the ECP, as every personnel involved in conducting the elections must be well trained weeks ahead of the big day.

It is vital to share the results with the polling agents of various political parties present in or around the polling areas, waiting to forward the (good or bad) news to their political parties. Usually, this information is handed out to the polling agents through a form named as Form-45, which has details of the names of the contestants and the number of votes each one of them has secured. Pictures surfaced on social media that, on a number of polling stations, instead of handing out the results on the Form-45, the polling agents were given the results written on regular papers with signature and/or stamp of the presiding officer, therefore raising questions of credibility.

(Left)Polling station results scribed on an ordinary piece of paper vs. (Right) Polling station results on the Form-45. Courtesy: Ali Moeen Nawazish (Facebook)

The availability of these forms in each polling station should have been made sure by the ECP in the first place. If due to any reason, any one polling station fails to possess these forms, they should have been dispatched from the nearest polling station (no matter how long it takes) and the practice of producing the final results on any other unofficial piece of paper should have been strongly discouraged as it raises serious doubts over truthfulness.

  1. The crisis phase

The fact that Raza addressed the media at 4am and talked about the delay of the verification of the results is a good thing to begin with. However, the content of his press-conference seemed rather vague and did not address the big issue to a great deal, thus subjecting the entire affair to harsh criticism by the media. He seemed to have applied a lot of image repair strategies, but at the end, his tactics did not work well.

Raza did dismiss the speculations going around in the media regarding the delay, however, it would have been preferred if, through his words and body-language, he would have at least tried making an attempt to make whatever he was saying seem more earnest, more professional, and more concerned. Mortification or apology plays a big part when it comes to image repair. Not once throughout his presser did he apologize to the nation for failing to deal with the situation effectively, and gave the ‘all-good’ impression.

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He mentioned that the delay in getting the results was also due to the weather conditions in certain parts of the country as the presiding officers had to be transported through a safe convoy to the office of the returning officer, indicating that nature also had a role to play in the entire affair. This argument is not only weak, but seems rather laughable as considering the technological advancements of the modern-era, it seems absurd to shift blame of one’s failures on factors that are obviously not significant considering the alternatives we have at our disposal.

During the Q/A session following the press-conference, Raza simply did not bother to answer the question of him taking responsibility of the failure of the system and therefore resigning. With a weird smile on his face, he calmly waived his hand to the ECP Secretary Yaqoob to answer on his behalf who simply stated that it was too early to make speculations as the institution had not even received results yet. At times, he would try to utter a sentence but would deliberately stop mid-way and would let one of the top ECP folks sitting next to him to answer for him, giving the impression that he was clearly unwilling, unable, and unprepared to tackle the reporters’ questions.

While mentioning the RTS’ failure during the Q/A session, Raza seemed to be looking for sympathies as he mentioned that it was not a big deal if the technology incorporated for the first time had failed to work; the ECP boss’s tone was as if he was pleading to be understood, while clearly not admitting to having a contingency plan. When asked whom would he blame for the failure of RTS, he promptly responded ‘Technology’ which, I’m quite sure, would have raised quite some eyebrows. In a related question, he simply disagreed to acknowledge any ‘failures’ in the entire election process, but did say that there were some ‘challenges’.

  1. The post-crisis phase

As an institution, ECP would have to review what went wrong, and where exactly did it go wrong, thus making necessary amends. Although the media was able to keep the nation engaged through the ‘preliminary and unofficial results’ it was breaking every now and then, ECP would have to gain the trust of the nation and undergo significant image repair by the time we have any major elections in the future by adopting a more professional, more mature, and more responsible attitude towards the way it functions.

Those in the top-management must learn to answer the questions the right way. Facts cannot be dealt with in a casual manner while dealing with state-level affairs. The behavior of as little as one person sitting at the top can put the entire organization or institution in bad light.

As long as institutions don’t learn from history in general or their mistakes in specific, they will continue repeating the same errors over and over again. Not only does this hamper productivity of that institution or organization, but it affects the attitudes of the publics who have certain expectations. In this particular case, the confusion caused by ECP may eventually lead the people to question the credibility of the results produced by the institution, therefore viewing the entire democratic process with suspicion.

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