Returning officers’ non-adherence to laws ‘overshadowed’ election result process: Fafen

Returning officers' non-adherence to laws 'overshadowed' election result process: Fafen

ISLAMABAD: As compilation of vote results underway for four consecutive days after the conduct of the February 8 nationwide polls, the Free and Fair Election Network (Fafen) urged the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to take notice of returning officers’ (ROs) non-compliance with the laws which ‘overshadowed an otherwise largely controversy-free voting and counting processes at the polling stations. The non-governmental election watchdog urged the country’s top poll organising authority to reinforce categoric legal provisions requiring complete transparency at all stages of the election results process including the preparation of provisional and consolidated results in the constituencies. “Section 92 of the Elections Act, 2017 requires the returning officers to prepare and announce the Provisional Consolidated Statement of the Results of the Count (Form-47) in the presence of contesting candidates, their election agents, and authorised observers as may be present.” “Similarly, Section 95(1) requires the returning officer to conduct the consolidation of the results in the presence of the contesting candidates and their election agents. Section 95(9) requires the Returning Officers to provide copies of Form-48 (Consolidated Statement of the Results of the Count Furnished by the Presiding Officers) and Form-49 (Final Consolidated Result). Section 238 also allows the accredited observers to observe the consolidation of results.” However, the ROs in 135 of 260 National Assembly constituencies did not adhere to these provisions, undermining the ECP’s efforts to maximize electoral transparency, which was generally maintained during the voting and counting processes at the polling stations. The Returning Officers did not allow Fafen observers in 135 constituencies to observe the tabulation process –– 80 in Punjab, 23 in Sindh, 18 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, 11 in Balochistan and all three in Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT), an official statement read. Of these 135 constituencies, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)-backed independents won 46, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) 43, Pakistan Peoples Party-Parliamentarians (PPP-P) 28, unaffiliated independents 5, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Pakistan (JUI-P) 3, 2 each by Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P) and Pakistan Muslim League (PML) and one each by Istehkam-e-Pakistan Party (IPP), Balochistan National Party (BNP), Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP), Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) and Majlis-e-Wahdat Muslimeen (MWM). The provisional result of one such constituency is yet to be announced. As per Fafen observers, the returning officers in 65 constituencies prohibited one or more candidates and/or their election agents from participating in the tabulation proceedings. Of these 65 constituencies, 25 are won by PML-N, 24 by PTI-backed independents, five by PPP-P, four by unaffiliated independents, three by PML, and one each by IPP, BNP and PkMAP. One such constituency remains undecided. While Section 92 requires the preparation of provisional results in presence of contesting candidates, their election agents and authorised observers, Fafen observers reported that the ROs in 80 out of 125 National Assembly constituencies where they were allowed by the returning officers to observe the tabulation proceedings — 43 in Punjab, 20 in Sindh, 13 in KP and four in Balochistan— were opening the tamper evident bags containing the Form-45 (Results of the Count) and Form-46 (Ballot Paper Account) brought by POs in their presence. In 42 constituencies – 17 in Punjab, 13 in Sindh, 11 in KP and one in Balochistan – these bags were opened without any candidates and/or their election agents present. In the remaining three constituencies – two in Sindh and one in KP— the observers could not determine whether or not these bags were being opened in the presence of candidates and election agents. As per Rule 84(3) of the Election Rules, 2017, the returning officers are required to point out any arithmetic errors in Form-45 to the presiding officers and ask them to correct the errors with their signatures before resending electronically a copy of the corrected Form-45 to the Commission. Fafen observers reported that in 53 National Assembly constituencies — 23 in Punjab, 18 in Sindh, 10 in KP and two in Balochistan — the ROs pointed out arithmetic errors in one or more Form-45 and asked the concerned POs to correct the errors with initials and re-send the electronic copies of the corrected forms. The returning officers in most constituencies did not make adequate arrangements for the hundreds of Presiding Officers (POs) who arrived at their offices to hand over the election results and materials. Long queues of vehicles carrying officials and election materials in the winter nights without any seating and food arrangements were the leading reason for the chaotic and crowded environment at the tabulation centres in 66 constituencies including 26 in Punjab, 25 in Sindh, 12 in KP and three in Balochistan as reported by Fafen observers. It takes roughly 15-30 minutes for each presiding officer to hand over election results and other election materials. Also, the disorderly proceedings at the tabulation centres may be due to same legal deadline of 2 a.m. for delivering polling stations’ results to the returning officers both electronically and physically. While this may be a feasible deadline in case results are transmitted electronically, the physical handing over of polling station results and materials remains a logistical challenge, especially in a country where many constituencies are geographically large such as the ones in Chitral, Kohistan, south Punjab, most parts of Balochistan and rural Sindh. Fafen observers reported that returning officers were able to prepare partially completed provisional results by the legally stipulated time of 2am in only four constituencies. The complete provisional result has to be prepared by 10am the day following the polling day. While the parliament may need to reform the Elections Act, 2017 in light of the operational realities as well as plug the persisting loopholes in the election result management process, the ECP must probe the non-compliance of Returning Officers of its instructions to ensure electoral transparency and determine responsibility as per Section 55 of the Elections Act, 2017, which empower the Election Commission to take action against erring election officials, public servants and persons in the service of Pakistan, it concluded.

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