Governed under military rule for long periods of its history, Pakistan’s July 25 general elections marked the second time a democratically elected, civilian government completed its five-year constitutional term, as per the 1973 constitution, and transferred power to a democratically elected successor. For Pakistan, the goal is to continue on the path of democratic governance and ensure a peaceful transfer of power to the next government, a process that will be complete once a new prime minster and president are elected and sworn into office over the coming weeks. These elections were also the first to be held under a new consolidated election law, aimed at enhancing the integrity of the electoral process. 

: Identification is checked at a polling station in Wagah, Pakistan (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)
Identification is checked at a polling station in Wagah, Pakistan. Photo courtesy of Tyler Hicks/The New York Times.

There was much speculation over the form of the new government leading up to Election Day. Would it be a return to power for the ruling the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N)? What about one of their two main opposition parties, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) or Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), taking control? Or would the election result in a weak coalition government that would hobble along for another five-year term with no clear mandate from the people? In a surprising victory, Imran Khan’s PTI took a significant number of seats in the National Assembly paving the way for a PTI led government.  

This third consecutive democratically elected government, helmed by PTI, took their oaths of office on August 13. This government, however, is not comprised solely of winning PTI candidates for the National Assembly. The party had to reach out to many other political parties who won few, but critically important seats and enabled PTI to incorporate them into a ruling coalition, gaining the requisite numbers to form a government and eventually to elect PTI chair Imran Khan as prime minster.  

A New Election Law

The consolidated election law was enacted in October 2017 and subsequently amended in November 2017. While many improvements were made to the process under this law—which consolidated nine election laws and provides for greater autonomy and independence of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP)—some claims have been made that the implementation of the new laws were lacking, especially when it came to review and scrutiny of candidate nomination papers. 

Many candidates did not understand the changes to the form, especially on asset declaration. However, for those candidates who were contesting in multiple constituencies, the same form was accepted by one election official while another election official in a different constituency would reject the form. This raised red flags on a number of fronts. Were the reviewing officials properly trained or was their bias based on the candidate’s party affiliation and targeting high-level members of political parties? Many prominent politicians were able to appeal to the courts and have the nomination rejections reversed, but those processes also hindered the ability of candidates to effectively and openly run their campaigns in the constituencies where they were rejected.  

Election Violence Redux

Despite the success of a peaceful transfer of power, however, election violence was severe. According to the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, upwards of 230 people lost their lives and over 400 were injured in 22 reported terrorist attacks in July 2018 alone. It is estimated that 13 of these attacks were aimed specifically at political leaders and election-related targets. In 2013, more than 1,000 people were killed or injured, primarily by the Pakistani Taliban, during the election period. The prior elections in 2008 were also violent when more than 500 people were killed or injured and a leading national candidate, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated.

The election violence that occurred during the 2013 and 2018 polls was due in part to the lack of comprehensive criteria for determining high-risk polling stations, with decisions being made in an ad hoc manner just weeks before Election Day with little to no transparency. In the current process, district-level plans are developed by a committee that is comprised of the deputy commissioner, the district police officer, district returning officer and district election commissioner. However, there is no overarching framework that guides their planning, which should be led and developed by the ECP. In contrast to 2013, however, the 2018 elections saw a drastic rise in the presence of military at polling stations. The ECP requested the assistance of the Army weeks in advance of Election Day, but what criteria was used to determine where military personnel were to be deployed remains opaque.  

Electoral Integrity Issues

Compounding this violence, there was a number of serious issues with the integrity of the election process, including accusations of pre-polling rigging and irregularities on Election Day itself, such as the results management system crashing as polling-station level election offices attempted to transmit the final vote counts from each polling station to the alleged removal of party polling agents from polling stations when ballots were being counted, which contradicts the new election law.

As the counting began, political parties such as PML-N, PPP and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) began reporting that their party polling agents—party members whose job it was to stay in the polling station and observe on Election Day process from the opening of the polls to the counting of ballots and transmission of results—were being asked to leave or shut out from the counting process that was taking place behind closed doors.

A major difference between 2013 and 2018 is that in this election party agents were better trained and knew that they were supposed to be present for the counting of ballots as well as receive copies of the form that contains the final vote count and results. Unfortunately, international observers left many of their polling stations just an hour or so after the polls closed. 

Adding fuel to this fire was the crashing of the electronic results management system that the ECP had touted to be a signature tool to ensure that results would be quickly provided to the public for each of the polling stations. The spectacular failure of this tool juxtaposed with the lack of transparency of the counting process in key polling stations and constituencies has given ammunition to opposition parties to call into question the integrity of the elections. 

What did Observers Find?

Interestingly enough, the European Union’s election observation mission (EU EOM) based its conclusion that the 2018 elections were conducted better than the 2013 election on the changes made by the new election law. Of the 50 or so recommendations made by the EU EOM in 2013, more than 35 focused on changes to legal framework for elections and since they were addressed in the new election law, this became one of the major benchmarks by which the EU EOM was able to say that the 2018 election were an improvement from 2013.  

While many international missions in 2013 and 2018 decried the levels of violence during the pre-election period, they still declared the polls to be relatively free and fair. The major difference between 2013 and 2018 is that there was no international observer mission fielded by the United States and or the U.S. Embassy. The EU EOM was the only consistent international observation mission between 2013 and 2018.

Looking ahead, the ECP must address these and other concerns that have been raised by various parties and stakeholders if they hope to retain any semblance of credibility to not only undertake the upcoming by-elections and upcoming local government elections, slated to occur in the next 18-24 months, but also the next general election. 

Two key markers to ensure the competence of the ECP would be: 1) a full review/investigation of why the results transmission system failed and how they plan to fix the system to ensure that it works for any subsequent election and 2) ensuring effective and timely adjudication of complaints through the election tribunal process. This time around, Pakistan cannot wait upwards of two years for election complaints to be reviewed and ruled on, especially now that the law allows for any citizen to bring a complaint to the tribunals.  

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