Pakistan polls free and fair, but officials were biased: observers

By Devirupa Mitra, IANS

Islamabad : Pakistan’s general elections Monday were relatively free and fair, but the government machinery was significantly tilted towards the erstwhile ruling party in the run-up to the polling, international observers said Wednesday.

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Michael Gahler, chief of the European Union Election Observer Mission, told reporters here that while the voting day passed off “better than had been anticipated”, the elections were conducted in an “environment that provided significant challenges”.

Releasing a preliminary report on the conduct of the elections, Gahler said the polling was “assessed positively on the whole, although some disorder and procedural irregularities were noted, particularly in female polling stations”.

While the counting also went off relatively smoothly, he noted: “Very few returning officers displayed constituency results with a breakdown of polling stations – a basic transparency requirement.”

But he said there were serious problems with the framework and environment, including “public authorities favouring the former ruling parties, serious restrictions on the right to stand as a candidate, restrictions and pressure on the media, involvement by nazims in campaigning activity, and a complaints-and-appeals framework that fails to provide effective remedy”.

While technical preparations did see an improvement, the EU team found that problems identified in the last general elections in 2001 were not addressed sufficiently.

They also noted a “lack of confidence in the independence of the Election Commission”.

While private media outlets gave a broad range of views, Gahler said the public broadcasters gave substantial coverage to the president, the government and the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) and only limited coverage of other parties.

“The election period has shown the strong desire of the Pakistani people for democracy and the rule of law”, said Robert Evans, chair of the European Parliament delegation.

Gahler said the mission was currently observing the results consolidation process and will remain in Pakistan to observe post-election developments, including complaints and appeals.

He called for “all outstanding complaints and appeals against the results to be processed quickly, impartially and transparently”, as well as the publication of detailed results by polling station.

“A final report containing detailed recommendations for the future, will be published within two months of the completion of the entire process,” Gahler added.

Former Congressman Jim Moody, who headed an election observer group from the US, said that despite a “serious flawed and difficult pre-election environment”, polling day defied “widespread expectation of violence, and fears of systematic manipulation appear to have been blunted”.

Moody cited the declaration of emergency just two month before the scheduled votes “severely constrained political activities, banned political rallies, shut down media outlets, removed and detained judges and jailed thousands of lawyers and civil society activists and effectively suspended some of Pakistan’s constitution”.

“Violence, including the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, also largely tainted the pre-election environment,” he said.

Both the US and EU observer teams noted that there were severe problems in the electoral rolls with some voters’ names missing and some duplicated. They also expressed concern over the low participation of women and problems at women-only polling stations.

Three US senators John Kerry, Joseph Biden and Chuck Hagel had Tuesday validated the election process, though they noted that it was not a perfect one by any stretch.

The Election Commission of Pakistan had given accreditation to around 1,100 foreign observers, with the biggest delegation being from the European Union and significant representation from the US and Japan.

Besides, an umbrella group of Pakistani civil society groups, Free and Fair Election Network, had deputed nearly 20,000 observers at districts across the nation, though over a thousand of them were not accredited due to last-minute procedural hurdles.

Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) leader Asif Ali Zardari had alleged there was “selective rigging” that stopped his party from crossing the majority mark.