By ALI HUSSAIN, Business Recorder

The international election observers mission of National Democratic Institute (NDI) and Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) has described the requirement for separate registration of voters, including the Ahmadis, as inconsistent with the commitments provided under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

The mission also described the voting closing and counting procedure as chaotic and nontransparent, besides noting other irregularities in its preliminary report on the country’s 2013 general elections, presented by chief of the NDI-ANFREL observers’ mission, Kjell Magne Bondevik along other team members during a press conference here on Monday.

The observers noted a calm and peaceful environment in most polling stations and the voters demonstrated enthusiasm and dedication, sometimes patiently enduring long waiting times, harsh weather conditions, and overcrowding. About the turnout, the report said that the observers generally assessed the turnout to be high, varied widely among visited polling stations. Opening voting and closing procedures were mostly followed though some disorganisation and lack of consistency was noted. Observers reported overcrowding in multiple locations across the country.

It said continuation of campaign activities on election day was observed in almost all polling locations visited by the observers. Instances of voters and polling personnel experiencing difficulties in finding voters’ names on the electoral rolls was observed in the majority of the areas, it added.

NDI-ANFREL observers visited more than 250 polling locations and followed opening, voting, closing, and counting procedures. Most polling stations opened on time or with less than half an hour delay, however, it noted significant delays in Hyderabad, Karachi, and Lahore because of the late arrival of essential election materials or polling personnel.

Some of the delays were attributed to poll workers being late or disorganised, including the areas of Haripur, Karachi, Lahore, and Rawalpindi, the report said. In Karachi, it observed that long queues outside the stations caused tension and resulted in extended voting hours.

During various stages of the election process, observers noted insufficient attention paid to ensuring that ballots and official forms and stamps were kept securely. In some places, ballot box seals were not affixed tightly enough to prevent tampering, it noted. Campaign tents were closer than the prescribed 400 yards at almost all polling locations visited. Campaign materials were at times displayed on polling stations and voters and polling agents were widely reported to be wearing party insignia.

NDI-ANFREL observers reported instances of polling agents instructing voters for whom to vote in Haripur, Islamabad, and Karachi. In addition, many voters entered polling stations carrying “chits” with party symbols and photographs of candidates or party leaders.

Observers generally reported being welcomed by polling personnel, who largely appeared organised and knowledgeable of procedures. A majority of observed polling officers conducted their duties in a professional and neutral manner. However, in some locations the high turnout seemed to overwhelm the staff having single Presiding Officer supervising the process in multiple booths, which at times resulted in lack of oversight and control.

Observers also noted inconsistent application of procedures, particularly regarding the reading out of voters’ names and Computerised National Identity Card (CNIC) numbers, checking CNICs against the electoral rolls, recording voters’ data on the counterfoil, instructing voters how to vote or fold ballots, and applying indelible ink. The identity of veiled women was not always verified, it noted. Relatively few problems were reported related to the electoral rolls. Most voters used chits that included all the necessary data to find their names on the rolls.

However, some confusion remained, when voters showed up at the wrong booths or stations, instances of which were observed in the majority of areas visited. A verification system that allowed voters to learn their polling location through text messages seemed to supplement, but not eliminate the party-distributed chits and the active role of polling agents in assisting voters on election day.

Some NDI-ANFREL observers reported similar conditions and procedures in male and female booths, while others witnessed fewer polling booths for women, longer lines, and less effectively implemented procedures. In one instance, in a rural area of NA-125, observers reported that male polling booths were orderly, well organised, and fully staffed, while the female booths were unable to open by late morning due to the absence of necessary polling personnel.

Observers reported that the secrecy of the vote was generally respected, apart from several instances with group voting, inadequate room set-up, and the positioning or absence of voting screens. Security personnel were observed at all polling stations visited by NDI-ANFREL observers, who assessed that they generally adhered to their mandated roles, and contributed to peaceful conduct of polls.

Two instances were reported where security personnel performed duties assigned to polling officials. In another ease, security officials prevented observers from adequately viewing the voting process. The observers reported few difficulties accessing the polling locations or obtaining necessary information, though several teams were asked to reduce their observation time, leave or not enter certain polling stations because of tension and potential violence. In one instance, observers in Faisalabad were refused entry to a polling station the Presiding Officer, who demanded a special authorisation from the constituency’s Returning Officer (RO).

Near the scheduled time for the closure of polling stations at 5:00 pm, the ECP announced extended voting for one additional hour for the entire country and three additional hours for specific constituencies in Karachi. A number of polling stations observed in Islamabad notified of the extension after they had already started closing and counting ballots.

The ECP announced that it currently plans to conduct re-polling at 43 out of 180 polling stations in NA-250 in Karachi because of delayed openings, threats to polling personnel, and stolen election materials. In some cases, the closing and counting procedures were described as chaotic and lacking transparency. Procedures for reconciliation generally were not followed and ballots were not always screened for validating stamps and signatures. Observers reported that, in some cases, polling personnel experienced difficulties filling out counting forms.

The consolidation and compilation of results has not yet been completed. The NDI-ANFREL mission will comment on this process in its final report. About the political violence and security environment, it said in the 2013 elections, non-state actors have been the primary perpetrators of the violence that plagued the electoral process.

In the pre-election period, the ability of candidates and political parties to engage voters freely was sharply undermined in certain areas of the country because of the grave level of violence and threats of violence. Violence and threats were targeted primarily at three parties: the ANP, MQM, and PPP. The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for dozens of attacks against election administrators, candidates, campaign staff, and their supporters.

On April 28, the situation escalated when the group announced its intention to end the democratic system altogether and began targeting additional parties. Some parties in Balochistan, FATA, Karachi and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa were prevented from holding outdoor rallies, requiring them to mobilise supporters and communicate campaign messages through social and other media. This resulted in an unlevelled playing field for those parties in certain areas of the country.

In its recommendations, the mission it said that political parties should stand together, with a unified voice, to address the issue of electoral violence. Similar to the spirit of co-operation with ‘which the political parties selected the Chief Election Commissioner and promoted important reforms in the years leading up to the elections, political parties should come together to mobilise public support to counter political violence.

The ECP and relevant law enforcement bodies should develop electoral security plans in a more timely manner. In addition, voter education should include clear descriptions of the role and responsibilities of law enforcement and the armed forces in the electoral process.

It recommended that guidelines on the responsibilities of party polling agents should be publicised by election authorities as early as possible in the pre-election period. Further political reforms arc required to enable fair and transparent electoral processes in the FATA. Political parties, parliamentarians and election authorities should continue to collaborate on legislative and administrative measures to bring FATA into the mainstream of the nation’s political life.

It further recommended that election authorities and lawmakers should renew efforts to advance the electoral reform process. A post-election review could be conducted by the ECP and measures should be taken to address issues such as: the establishment of a unified election code, gender equality measures, observer rights and rules, and results compilation and consolidation mechanisms, should continue to be addressed in the post-election period.

The ECP should work with lawmakers to improve and expand the legal and regulatory framework for election dispute resolution. In addition, the ECP should use its rule-making powers and work with lawmakers to clarify and expand the legal framework for election dispute resolution to include the management of complaints in the pre-election period.

Training for election personnel should be improved to address the inconsistent implementation of polling day procedures. Election procedures should incorporate measures to increase ballot security. These include steps to conduct ballot reconciliation and account for ballot box seals.

The ECP should publicly release polling station level results as soon as possible following elections. This would enable domestic monitors and polling agents to compare the results they observed on election day to final results. This measure would foster transparency and help promote public confidence in the final electoral results as well as the electoral process as a whole.

NADRA and the ECP should maintain their collaboration to improve the electoral rolls. Election authorities should promote a system for continuous voter registration, as well as automatic updates to the electoral rolls, in tandem with civil registration drives. Public outreach should be conducted to disseminate information on how to validate and correct information on the electoral rolls. The ECP should review complaints, reports, and evidence of incidents where women were barred from voting.

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