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Akbar Nasir Khan-Fear-free elections are fair elections

Akbar Nasir Khan

The constitutional mandate of the Election Commission of Pakistan is to conduct free, fair and transparent elections. However, this time it is important to add another pre-requisite i.e. peaceful. Threats of election based violence (EBV) - which is a sub-set of political violence - are looming large on landscape of Pakistan during General Elections 2013. The recent violent incidents in Peshawar, Karachi, Lahore and Quetta are harbingers of fearful events during the election campaign and more so on the Election Day. National and international observers are apprehensive that holding peaceful elections is becoming a bigger challenge for the ECP and caretaker governments in the absence of a sound electoral security plan. 
In countries where democratic traditions are not very strong, elections are the means of getting all or nothing from the political system. Political actors have the desire to control the resources and institutions by all means. Therefore, historically, the EBC in Pakistan is prevalent across the country without any distinction of rural or urban areas. The forms of EBV are different, ranging from the use of force, to creating barriers for voters in the elections. Female voters are the main victims of EBV. In some areas they are totally deprived of this constitutional right and in others they mechanically follow the orders of perpetrators of EBV.
However, from a political economy perspective, urban violence is more visible than rural due to a greater presence of national and international observers along the media. Political violence in Karachi continues regardless of the nature and timing of the caretaker governments. It is written on the wall that the contest regarding the control of Karachi will be decided by the bullet rather than the ballot. However, the scale of this violence will by anybody’s guess. Elections 2008 cannot be used as a reference point because there are many changes in 2013 including demographic conditions, political alignment of personalities and active participation of political parties like PTI and JI along with ANP who were not contesting the elections in 2008. In rural constituencies, perhaps there will be less visible violence but total control of one party or individual will ensure that fear governs the polls and opponents do not dare to raise their voice. Bullet shots may not be heard and there may not be blood but the elections will not be free and fair. 
Threats are many and so are the targets. Personal insecurity tops the list of threats. Pakistan is facing severe threat of terrorism from the non-state actors. KP, Balochistan and Karachi are more vulnerable than other parts of the country. The whole election machinery will be targeted. The ECP, judiciary and police are themselves the prime targets. The killing of Deputy Election Commissioner in Quetta, and suicide attacks in judicial complex of Peshawar, are eye openers for the decision makers. From political parties’ perspective, deadly attacks on leadership of ANP have made it difficult for them to continue their electoral campaign as fearlessly as its political rivals. Situation in FATA is also critical because this time, for the first time in history, there will be party-based elections there. If the ECP is successful in implementing the conditions of 10% compulsory female voting then it will be another challenge for the civilian and military law enforcement agencies to provide the male and female voters safe access to polling stations and safe return to their homes after polling. 
The playing field has already been skewed by the militants in the favour of right wing parties. Particularly these days when there are no responsible caretaker governments in place, the top leadership of such vulnerable parties is keeping a very low profile. This is due to the transitory period between one elected government and caretaker government is marked with stark uncertainty about the responsibility of law and order and willingness of various law enforcing agencies to take active part in providing security. The police offices are also not sure about expected postings and transfers by the outgoing governments and caretakers. This uncertainty is certainly an opportunity for the destabilising forces to strike down their targets. 
ECP has issued Code of Conduct (CoC) for political parties and it categorically highlights that candidates will not use violence to influence the voting patterns and influence the voters. But there is also the very critical question of implementation of CoC. Article 220 of the Constitution clearly empowers ECP to get support from all provincial and federal departments during the elections. Now it is up to the ECP, how it uses the executive machinery, including police, for peaceful elections. 
There are serious question marks over the capacity of the police to prevent EBV in the prevailing electoral culture. The fear of retribution by the political leaders after the elections prevents the police from performing their duties honestly and neutrally. There is no institutional guarantee that the good police officer will not be punished for doing his job right during the elections. 
Despite all these limitation of the police and other civilian law enforcing agencies including levies in FATA, it is the responsibility of ECP to ensure the presence of a non-partisan and neutral local administration to provide electoral security. If the police are not well equipped and not ready to take on the political pressure, they still do not have any excuse to be unaware of the laws like The People’s Representation Act 1976 and its provisions which give the presiding officers powers of a First Class Magistrate on election day vis-a-vis responsibilities of police officers.
Implementation of the CoC is the key. Media can play a role in building consensus among the political parties by focusing on the issue. In the meantime, ECP should devise an Electoral Security Plan (ESP) in consultations with the Inspector General of Police to ensure that the police have a specific role, to assist the ECP during the election campaign by reporting the violations of CoC to the ECP monitoring cells. The training of police officers at ground level on electoral security will be one such step. Granting more access to media and observers will add more eyes and ears to observe and report the EBV and corrupt and illegal practices. In the monitoring cell, ECP can appoint well-reputed professional police officers to assist the ECP for effective implementation of CoC. ESP should proceed swiftly with the violations as per procedures and if the first few violations are checked fairly and justly, precedents will be set, like the Waheeda Shah Case. And the ECP can in turn write the history of successful efforts to prevent EBV in Pakistan.

The writer is a Governance and Security Expert  based in Islamabad

Last modified onTuesday, 02 April 2013 19:38

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  • Guest (Foluke)

    This is a very interesting piece as it gives an insight into the challenges posed by EBV to the achievement of true democracy. The brilliant suggestions made are very valuable and would essentially ensure a free, fair and peaceful election if only they are executed effectively.

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