FAFEN terms Punjab by-polls turnout ‘impressive’

ISLAMABAD: The 49.7% voter turnout in the by-election on 20 seats of the Punjab Assembly has been termed “impressive” by the Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN).

“The elections on July 17, 2022 augurs well for an otherwise struggling democracy in Pakistan,” FAFEN said in its report, observing that the by-polls culminated with PML-N’s acceptance of defeat, a rare gesture that can set the stage for a thriving democracy in the country.

It said that despite reports of isolated incidents of brawls and fights, the day of election remained largely orderly and well-managed. However, the perception of quality of electoral exercise was somehow tarnished by some of the incidents overplayed by media, particularly the social media.

According to the findings of FAFEN observer report, the political environment, however, remained highly charged leading up to the by-polls.

It observed polarisation and acrimonious campaign, disregard for code of conduct for parties and candidates with impunity, increased yet uneven growth in registered voters and a welcome decrease in the gender gap, orderly and timely commencement of polling, largely well-managed conduct of polling process, need for secrecy of ballots and voters choices, facilitation of women, PWDs and transgender persons ensured, legally complaint issuance of ballots at most polling stations, isolated instances of voter’s disenfranchisement, need for improved enforcement to check campaigning inside and outside the polling stations, largely efficient and transparent counting process and provisions of result form, timely and transparent result management, largely peaceful with isolated incidents of violence.

PTI emerged victorious on 15 of the 20 seats which were vacated after its members were de-seated for voting against their party’s directions in the election for Chief Minister of Punjab.

The PTI lost four constituencies to PMLN candidates and one to an independent candidate. The FAFEN report stated that PTI had alleged foul play since the outset of the by-elections process and levelled allegations of partisanship against the Election Commission as well as other government institutions.

Considering the gravity of these allegations, the FAFEN report stated that an independent probe through a specially formed parliamentary committee comprising representatives of all parties may be instituted to ascertain their veracity or otherwise.

In addition to contributing to the ongoing electoral reform process, a conclusive probe will strengthen the integrity of future elections.

Amongst several positives, the FAFEN report stated that the by-elections are instructive for the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) and other stakeholders to pay more attention to curbing the increasingly polarising tactics and content of party campaigns, both before and on the election day, not only through traditional mechanisms but also social media.

The by-elections reinforced the need for a proper monitoring and enforcement mechanism to ensure compliance with the Code of Conduct for Parties and Candidates and check any misuse of government resources and alleged cases of vote-buying and other inducements through tightening the laws, rules and limits for election expenses. In addition to improving the election environment, a stricter legal regime must be introduced to discourage unsubstantiated allegations, insinuations and accusations, the report said.

According to the report, the ECP ensured appreciable improvements in polling, counting and result-management processes, particularly by making sure that preliminary results of all constituencies, except for the one in Rawalpindi (PP-7), were promptly released. “This ensured greater public confidence in the election outcome and also preempted escalation of political temperatures that generally arise as a result of delayed results,” the report said.

However, the FAFEN report stated that the ECP’s enforcement remained weak for curtailing the campaigning and canvassing on elections day through electronic media and social media primarily due to inadequate legal and regulatory provisions.

The ECP’s instructions to media on election coverage were largely circumvented with political leaders from contesting parties canvassing for votes in their media appearances on the elections day.

Instructions for the telecast of polling stations-wise results were also not completely adhered to. While these practices outside the polling stations were observed, contesting candidates in several constituencies also employed newer ways to woo voters such as rallies and gatherings away from the legally-barred limits around the polling stations.

The FAFEN report suggested that the elections law needs to be reinforced to curb such practices in future elections and one way to address such situations is to introduce effective checks on the use of money which currently are inadequate, cosmetic and weak. “Unless campaign finance rules are tightened, a level playing field will be difficult to be maintained for all candidates and political parties,” the report said.

The by-elections were among the most hotly contested elections in recent times and the number of contestants dropped from 234 candidates (226 men and eight women) who contested in general elections (GE) 2018 to 175 (170 men and five women) for the 2022 by-elections.

Compared to the 2018 general elections PTI increased its share of seats (from 8 to 15) and polled votes from 684,820 (32%) to 1,048,632 (47%). PMLN also increased its tally of seats from one to four and votes from 547,599 (25%) to 883,632 (39%) of the polled votes.

Compared to 2018 general elections both the parties added to the number as well as the percentage share of the polled votes at the expense of independent candidates, and other parties except TLP which maintained their share of 6% of the polled votes.

Must Read