SPOTLIGHT | Elections 2018: Two Years On, Rigging Allegations Remain Unaddressed

SPOTLIGHT | Elections 2018: Two Years On, Rigging Allegations Remain Unaddressed
Following the 2018 general elections in Pakistan, all major political parties claimed that the polls were manipulated to bring a 'selected' party into power. Leaders of Pakistan Muslim League - N (PML-N) had been alleging pre-poll rigging ahead of the elections. If one was to independently assess the electoral process, it is apparent that the events that unfolded on the Election Day raised questions on the transparency of the polls.

Prime Minister Imran Khan, in his victory speech, vowed to hold an independent inquiry into the allegations of rigging levelled by the opposition parties. Two years later, the questions raised following the elections remain unanswered.

Naya Daur examines various controversies associated with one of the most controversial elections in Pakistan's history.

Pre-poll irregularities

Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT) President Ahmad Bilal Mehboob said that an overwhelming amount of circumstantial evidence pointed to pre-poll rigging in the lead up to the elections. It leaves very little doubt about the manipulation that took place prior to the polls, he told Naya Daur.

'Rigging methods refined'

He said that the attempts to rig the general elections 2018 began long before the pre-electoral process. The scope of such steps, he says, was widened close to the polls in 2017-18.

"Those who rig the polls have been doing so for decades, which is why they have learned their lesson and refined their expertise. Now they start the process way before the Election Day", he said.
He added that the most effective way for them [to rig elections] was to start early on and try to steer the electoral process before the polls without the risk of being caught while committing this act.

Ahmad said that in 1970 general elections in Pakistan, rigging was committed on the Election Day, but it backfired as the violations were revealed. "That's when those who commit the rigging understood that election day rigging is not doable", he added.

The Supreme Court judgement in Asghar Khan case maintains that there was evidence of [pre-poll] rigging ahead of the elections of 1988 and 1990 whereby an alliance was created against a political party and it was facilitated through financial assistance. And this continued in the subsequent general elections in the country, Mehboob says.

In 2018 elections, he said, this method of pre-poll rigging was repeated.. "Since apparently they did not want Nawaz Sharif to win, the process was manipulated against him", he said, adding that by coercing media, the public opinion was influenced in favour of the PTI."

Imran Khan's numbers were dramatically increased in all public opinion polls and Nawaz Sharif's popularity graph went down", he said.

'Attempts to rig the elections began in 2014'

Quantifying the pre-poll rigging, Mehboob said that the public opinion was charged in favour of the now ruling party. "It started as early as 2014 when media gave unprecedented coverage to the sit-ins staged by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT). "Even with empty chairs and small crowd, Imran Khan's speeches from the container were broadcast live on all news channels", he told Naya Daur.

Mehbood believes that even though the then government of Pakistan Muslim League - N (PML-N) was not dislodged through the anti-government sit-ins in 2014, it marked as the beginning of the process to manipulate the 2018 elections as the government was discredited.

Coercion of media

Further, Mehboob said that media groups were pressured into firing journalists and anchors who were not willing to toe the official line and sing praises of the PTI and its narrative. The pressure was subtle but not unnoticeable, he says.

In response to a question about the kind of pressure media had to face, Mehmood recalled how the distribution of DAWN newspaper was banned in Cantonment areas. The media house was accused of treason by online trolls and supporters of the PTI. He further said that the transmission of Geo News was also blocked on multiple occasions during 2014-18 in Cantt areas. "This was part of a larger plan to coerce these media groups into submission in order to ensure the success of the pre-poll rigging", he said.
Media owners and anchors were even told not to invite certain individuals on talk shows and in some cases they would even suggest speakers for TV discussions.

If the owners did not comply, either their transmissions would be blocked or cable operators would shift their channels to the last numbers, he added.

Could media have resisted pre-poll rigging?

Mehboob said that ideally media owners would have taken a stand and refused to compromise on principles, but they were not in a position to resist coercion. "Most media owners have their own businesses apart from channels or newspapers and they could not afford to be on the wrong side of the powers-that-be", he said.

'PPP was complicit in the process':
While answering a question, Mehboob said that Pakistan People's Party (PPP) did not resist the efforts to hijack the electoral process because it thought that the powers-that-be will spare the party and favour it in the elections. But the appeasement did not work for the party and it met the same fate as the PML-N, he added.

Journalist and analyst Raza Rumi thinks the PPP was bound to play along because the leadership of the party had had several corruption cases filed against them which is why they had no option but to woo the powers-that-be.

Polling day 

On the Election Day, failure of the Result Transmission System (RTS) was the major factor that cast doubts on the electoral process. The RTS was launched to ensure that the resulted delivered to the Returning Officers (ROs) are not altered, as has been the case in the previous elections. However, the system faced an unexpected breakdown and the same old method was employed by the Presiding Officers (POs). Form 45 was physically transmitted to RO offices. According to Ahmad Bilal Mehboob, 60-70 per cent of Forms 45 were without the polling agents' signature -- a requirement under the Election Law.

Experts say that the failure of the RTS was a key factor that undermined the transparency of the electoral process on the Election Day.

Even if the breakdown of the RTS was not a conspiracy, why has there been no inquiry?", asked Meboob. He added that the ECP has recently asked the cabinet division to carry out an inquiry into the failure of the RTS system, but the application has fallen on deaf ears.

'Electoral reforms useless if desire to manipulate election continues'

Ahmad Bilal Mehboob said that Pakistan has already introduced all electoral reforms needed to ensure free and fair elections. But for transparency, there needs to be a willingness to let the democratic process take its course. Political parties, he says, must learn their lesson and refuse to enter into alliances with undemocratic forces to bring each other down.

Polling agents forced out of the polling stations

Ahmad Bilal told Naya Daur that he received reports from various cities on the Election Day that polling agents were asked to leave the polling stations by presiding officers. Several presiding officers later stated that they were instructed to do so by the military personnel deployed at the stations.

Post-poll process

After the announcement by ECP that the system had stopped working, the presiding officers started giving the results to the polling agents on unauthorized pages, without any stamps and signatures. Many in PML-N and PPP believe that this was an extremely important part of the ‘elaborate rigging plan’.

A PML-N worker from the former PM Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s constituency in Murree told Naya Daur that the polling agents were being given results on unauthorised pages and without the ECP stamps. “They would call the main electoral office of the MNA or MPA and tell them that they’ve won by, let’s say, 80 votes to 21 on one particular polling station but the lead according to the results coming from the RO’s office would be reduced to 15-20 votes. That’s when we realised that something was cooking."

He further claimed that late PML-N leader Raja Ashfaq Sarwar, who was contesting on the Punjab Assembly seat in the same area, sent men out to see what was happening. They found hundreds of ballot papers with stamps on Tiger, our electoral sign, lying on the road to the RO’s office”, he said.

Protests in Murree

He told that Shahid Khaqan Abbasi had refused to take part in the protests but Raja Ashfaq Sarwar was not willing to let go. “Raja sahib was also the Secretary General of PML-N Punjab. He would never let them steal his seat. He wanted the votes to be counted again at the RO’s office, in his presence, before the announcement of the result. His supporters had gathered at the district court in large numbers. It was becoming a law and order situation when Raja Ashfaq Sarwar finally agreed to have a recount the next morning”.

But this counting never took place. “The counting never took place because by the next morning it was clear that PTI had won the election. They also told their people to gather outside the district court and didn’t let the counting begin. The administration was not willing to offend them. Raja Ashfaq Sarwar was so disheartened that he fell critically ill only two months after the election and never recovered from his paralysis”. Sarwar died on April 21, 2020.

Another PML-N candidate from Charsadda-II, Mian Alamgir Shah, told Naya Daur that his results were changed at the RO’s office. “I knew I was never going to win. Muslim League has never been popular in Charsadda. I was contesting the election only because Mian Nawaz Sharif had told me to. But they changed the results to humiliate PML-N further”.

He said he had copies of results -- all signed by the relevant Presiding Officers. “The results weren’t complete and my total according to the copies in my possession was just above 16,000.

“But according to the official results, the total number of votes I received was hardly 2000. I went to the RO the next day and asked him what had happened. He said, ‘look, I have children and I fear for their lives. But I’ll be very straight forward to you. All the speeches you made during the election campaign were against the army, not PTI or some other political party. So we were specifically told that your total should be lower than even that of the independent candidates. I can’t help you here.’”

Naya Daur could not independently verify the claims. However, the failure of the RTS provided the opposition with enough room to make such claims. The report from the European Union was also critical in this regard. “The lack of contingency planning and of testing the RTS application resulted in the delayed and non-transparent transmission of election results,” the report read.

It also questioned media’s impartiality. “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”, the report says on Page no 5.

Courts' intervention strengthened the belief about rigging

In light of this report, courts’ intervention in some of the cases was also seen as a cause for concern. Two such interventions involve the two heads of their relative political parties – Imran Khan and Shehbaz Sharif. On Lahore’s NA-131, PM Imran Khan had defeated PML-N’s Khawaja Saad Rafique by a narrow margin of 680 votes. The total number of rejected votes in this constituency was 2835. Saad Rafique’s request for a recount was rejected by ECP but it was granted by Lahore High Court. However, when Imran Khan appealed before Supreme Court for a stay order,the former Chief Justice of Pakistan Saqib Nisar obliged.

Meanwhile, PML-N President Shehbaz Sharif had lost to PTI’s Faisal Vawda in Karachi by a margin which was also far exceeded by the number of rejected votes in this constituency, NA-249. He requested a vote recount and moved Sindh High Court seeking to stay the announcement of the result. However, Sindh High Court rejected the plea and told Shehbaz Sharif to approach the election tribunal. In both cases, the PML-N candidates were denied the right to vote recount.

Opposition remained disorganised

The joint opposition rejected the results. Shehbaz Sharif termed it the ‘dirtiest election in Pakistan’s history’. HRCP also raised questions over the election process and the failure of RTS. However, an APC was called in Islamabad where, despite JUI-F leader Maulana Fazl ur-Rehman’s strong protestations, the united opposition decided to join the parliament and contest the election for the leader of the House. The opposition parties gave a protest call in Islamabad but the show was extremely disappointing. Finally, they promised to release a White Paper on the 2018 election rigging but no such paper has come to the fore in the last two years and, it appears, that the united opposition has settled for what it had initially termed ‘a stolen mandate’.

Covering the polling process — a reporter's account
Raza Hashmi who covered the polls as a reporter notes that the election engineering on the polling day was fairly obvious. "Associated with a prominent media house back in 2018, I was assigned to cover the polling day in NA 124, an important constituency of Lahore", he recalls.

"It was 7 in the morning when I was all set to begin the first live hit outside a polling station in Gawalmandi when two army personnel asked me to leave the place immediately. Resisting their demand, I produced my official card approved by Election Commission of Pakistan which permitted me to observe polling, counting and result compilation process. But to my shock, they asked me to leave, saying that they had orders that no media person should be allowed inside the polling area.

Later, I faced a similar situation at another polling station in Choona Mandi area of Lahore where I had to confront the troops while trying to enter a polling station.

Not only did I have to face resistance by the authorities while performing my duties as a reporter, but I was also asked to censor myself. My channel pushed me and my other colleagues to 'balance out' the exit poll conversation with public [in favour of the PTI].

PTI's polling agents also sought help against violations

Polling agents, even those from the PTI, approached us to get help in what they termed as open violation of rules by the officials, but we were not allowed to take them on air. During all this chaos, polling time ran out. We were instructed to go in search for results. My preparations for the same were done. I placed my reporting team in different offices of political parties. I was also sitting with a chief polling agent of a political party. We were both busy contacting our sources for the result and were compiling the result according to the information which was peeping into our database. A number of reporters were also at the office and It looked like a mini press club. All of us were sending the results to our offices with a coordinated effort.

At around 9 PM, we could only get 20 to 30 results from polling stations out of 400 plus stations when a man barged into the office and announced joyously that PML-N had won from NA 124.

Everybody was stunned. When asked about his source of information, he pointed at me, saying that my channel had announced the result just now. I was stunned as I had not given my channel any information because I did not have any information in the first place. The reporters started yelling at me, and the chief polling agent of PML-N was disturbed as he wanted to send the results to his higher command before it gets to the media.

Meanwhile, when I contacted my colleague covering the adjacent constituency NA 125, I found him in a situation worse than mine, as my channel had declared PTI candidate Yasmin Rashid the winner by 10 PM. The news was later proven false. Furious PML-N supporters surrounded him and he had to take refuge in a private car leaving his DSNG.

The purpose of this media manipulation was to create confusion, controversy and chaos. Elections were managed institutionally. To divert and disperse the focus of debate and criticism, media was used to create an atmosphere of uncertainty."

The opinion of the relevant experts, facts gathered from reliable sources and a reporter's account published above strengthen the claims that the general elections were engineered to bring the PTI into power.

Ailia Zehra is News Editor at NayaDaur Media. Ali Warsi is Web editor at NayaDaur Media. Raza Hashmi is a reporter based in Lahore.