ISLAMABAD – Coercion, lax enforcement of election laws, massive use of the local government apparatus, bogus ballots at women polling booths and flaws in the electoral lists marred the by-election to the NA-26 seat in Bannu held on Thursday, according to Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN) observers.
FAFEN, a network of 30 leading civil society organizations, was accredited by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to monitor the poll for the National Assembly seat that fell vacant after the demise of Maulana Naseeb Ali Shah of the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA).
A 17-member FAFEN team observed 72 out of 274 polling stations in rural and urban areas of the constituency. The observation was made through all stages of polling – opening of polling stations, voting and counting of votes. In addition to employing standardized observation forms following international standards for domestic monitoring, the delegation interviewed more than 200 voters, election officials, polling agents and political party activists to draw its conclusions, says a report released for media here on Friday.
The report says, “Voting, particularly in rural polling stations, was marred by a coercive environment created by the supporters of the MMA candidate, Ziyad Durrani, who is also the son of NWFP Chief Minister Akram Durrani.”
It says that armed men allegedly supporting the MMA were present inside many polling stations, apparently supervising the polling process. Supporters of PkMAP’s Dr Habibullah were also seen brandishing weapons inside some polling stations, it says, adding the two sides came close to clashing at several polling stations, but police and area notables helped defuse the tension. On the other hand, police officials were sitting inside most of the male and female polling stations instead of manning the gates, as was their mandate.
The report says in some instances the local version of Taliban sympathetic to the MMA took control of the polling stations and ensured nobody could vote for any candidate other than that of the MMA. “At polling station-189 Rehmatullah School Hyderi Mohammadkhel, FAFEN observers were threatened by the local version of Taliban and asked to leave immediately.
The report further says in violation of the election laws and the Local Government Ordinance, union Nazims were seen actively engaged in the election campaign and canvassing for votes for Mr Durrani. These Nazims were present inside most of the polling stations.
Most women’s polling booths that were observed by FAFEN were empty throughout the day. Witnesses told FAFEN at many polling stations that the area multi-party notables had struck agreements on barring women from voting in their areas.
However, during the counting of votes, the number of ballots from women’s polling booths appeared to be much higher than the turnout of women voters.
Another serious flaw in the electoral exercise was lax enforcement of election laws by election officials who appeared unwilling to enforce their mandate either because of a lack of capacity or social and cultural pressures that bar them from asserting the law.
“At one polling station, an assistant presiding officer was seen telling voters to stamp Mr Durrani’s symbol, the book. In polling station-21 Government Public School No. 5, the assistant presiding officer, in full view of the presiding officer, was giving voters ballots that had already been stamped on this same symbol,” says the report.
FAFEN will make public its final, detailed report and recommendations on April 3, but is able to conclude in this preliminary report that the by-election in Bannu exposed many flaws in election administration that need to be rectified by the ECP in order to ensure that the forthcoming general election is free, fair and transparent.