A Pakistani villager casts his vote at a polling station during general election in Mohri Pur, some 60 kilometres from the central Pakistan city of Multan on July 25, 2018. Pakistanis vote on July 25 in elections that could propel former World Cup cricketer Imran Khan to power, as security fears intensified with a voting-day blast that killed at least 30 after a campaign marred by claims of military interference. / AFP PHOTO / SS MIRZA

The European Union Election Observation Mission (EOM) has released its 88-page report on the July general elections in Pakistan, and it has raised some serious concerns. These include the role of the Election Commission, partisan media, curbs on media, lack of a level playing field for all political players, unnecessary deployment of security forces inside polling stations, delays in announcing the election results, and the difficulties the EU observers faced in getting permission from to cover the elections.

The report says the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) was not able to bolster transparency and accountability for the electoral process. It was observed that voters were not properly instructed, the polling booths were not organized, and the ECP was not able to provide timely provisional results, which created distrust among the stakeholders.

The report also shed light on the presence of military personnel in the polling booths, terming this a blow to civilian ownership. It said army personnel should have been positioned outside the polling stations as they had no business inside them.

Regarding the media, the report clearly states that though upon a first look Pakistani media looks vibrant and free, actually it is not free and the news and editorials are controlled by the security establishment. It concludes that though Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and the Pakistan Peoples Party were given adequate coverage, PML-N was specifically given negative coverage, and the talk shows and news reports mostly focused on portraying it as corrupt, while PTI was given the most positive media coverage.

The report says, “Comprehensive analysis of the media’s output reveals that 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.”

The EOM report also raises questions on the military deployment and its impact on the polling process. On page 20 of the report, it is stated, “Various EU EOM interlocutors raised concern over the role of the military inside polling stations, particularly their interventions during the vote count and transmission of the results. Others described the presence of the army inside polling stations as intimidating and that, in a few cases, it was the security official rather than the presiding officer who was in charge.”

The report clearly indicated discrepancies and irregularities during the vote-counting process and denial of a level playing field to the PML-N and other parties by curbing the media, which was tilted toward PTI.

The report also shed light on how minorities were marginalized in the electoral process by not being given the right to vote.

In any case, the report actually strengthens the opposition parties’ allegations of rigging, but contrary to that, the Pakistani media have told the masses that this report has maintained that the general elections were free and transparent.

The major news publications of the country have not provided the details of the report but have only chosen a few lines of positive notes on which they have based headlines that the EU observers had found that the elections were not rigged. However, this is not the case, as this report actually raised serious concerns that tended to validate the fact that the media were controlled and the voting process was managed to get the desired results.

Of course, as an international observer the EU OEM cannot put the blame directly on the security establishment, the ECP or the owners of the media, but can only raise concerns on matters pertaining to these institutions, which ultimately is a hint that everything was not right.

The OEM termed the voting procedure itself quite OK while focusing on the vote-counting process and the delay in releasing the results as the points of concern.

The opposition parties in Pakistan, especially the PML-N, have maintained that the rigging took place before the polling by not allowing them a level playing field and then during the vote count, which they claim was rigged blatantly to deprive them of seats and to bring PTI into the government.

Other than this the OEM report draws attention to the disparity between male and female voters, as the female vote count was much lower than men’s.

It is also mentioned that freedom of expression and the right to stand for election might have been curtailed by vague moral and ethical requirements. Blasphemy laws were cited as major problems for the effective exercise of freedom of speech.

It also noted that Ahmadis faced obstacles to practicing their right to vote. They are still registered on a separate electoral roll, contrary to constitutional provisions on the equality of citizens and against Pakistan’s international commitments.

One statement by the OEM is a clear indication of the failure of the ECP to conduct a free and fair election:

“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.”

One wonders how on earth this report, which reveals discrepancies and shows signs of organized rigging, can be termed positive or satisfactory by the media and the ruling parties. Even PTI’s coalition partner the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM Pakistan) still maintains that the July election was rigged.

In any case, by not quoting the full report, the Pakistani media have clearly given evidence that besides the curbs and restrictions, they deliberately favor the ruling elite in order to gain monetary benefits.

As far as the ECP and the security establishment are concerned, this report is another eye-opener, as everyone in the world has serious reservations over the presence of military personnel inside the polling stations, especially when the military and Nawaz Sharif’s party, PML-N, were involved in an invisible battle at that time. It might have been much better not to drag army personnel into this by asking them to perform duties in the polling stations.

As for the media, it is high time they learned that facts cannot be buried by hiding or by changing them through spin wizards.

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Imad Zafar

Imad Zafar is a journalist and columnist/commentator for newspapers. He is associated with TV channels, radio, newspapers, news agencies, and political, policy and media related think-tanks.

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