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Fact-Check: Did EU Term 2018 Pakistan Elections ‘Credible’?

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Former finance minister Ishaq Dar’s interview with BBC has generated a controversy in Pakistan with PMLN’s opponents claiming he didn’t do well in the interview and stood ‘exposed’ after the host’s tough questions. A particular part from the interview where Ishaq Dar was told by the anchor that the 2018 general elections were termed fair by international bodies is being circulated on social media.
But the EU observers reports had reported massive irregularities from the polls. Here are a few main points from the final EU report on Elections 2018:

Challenges for the EU observatory team

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.

ECP’s failure to ensure accountability

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.

Voter education missing

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.

Public assembly limited due to security risks

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.

Media manipulation

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.

ECP dispute hearing process flawed

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 2018.

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Naya Daur