Pakistan election-monitoring group pulls back on some claims

By Filza Khurram, written for  |  June 19, 2013 at 12:33 PM
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KARACHI, Pakistan, June 19 --

A Pakistani election-monitoring group has backpedalled on some of the claims it made of voting irregularities in the aftermath of the country's May 11 elections.

The Free and Fair Election Network, known as FAFEN, a network of 30 nongovernmental organizations engaged in election and governance oversight since 2006, deployed 41,000 observers to monitor polling stations nationwide, the biggest monitoring effort in Pakistan's electoral history.

After the polls, which saw Pakistan's first transfer of power from one civilian government to another, FAFEN made a series of claims of irregularities that have since landed the network in legal trouble. Sixteen legal complaints have been registered against its chief executive officer, Muddassir Rizvi.

In its May 13 "Preliminary Statement on the 2013 Election," FAFEN described voting in some provinces as "relatively fair," but also alleged there had been "incidents of irregularities, fraud and lax enforcement of election law and regulations before and on Election Day."

Among the "irregularities" were cases of voter turnout exceeding the number of registered voters at 49 polling stations across the country.

It cited problems at polling stations around the country, including "74 cases in which observers were barred from polling stations, 13 cases of violence against observers and 78 other violent incidents."

They also reported "at least 62 unauthorized changes in the polling scheme, including women's polling booths not being set up."

The organization lauded the voting in Punjab province and parts of Sindh province as "relatively fair," while questioning the fairness of polling in the tribal areas, insurgency-plagued Baluchistan province, and Khyber Pakhtunkwa because of pre-poll violence and restrictions on women voting.

It criticized polling in parts of Pakistan's largest city, Karachi, alleging a "combination of pervasive pre-election violence, last-minute electoral boycotts, frequent obstruction of neutral election observers by MQM (Muttahida Qaumi Movement) party workers, tangible evidence of fraud and irregularities, and significant administrative failures that are likely to have disenfranchised some voters."

A day after its statement, however, FAFEN withdrew its claim that voter turnout exceeded the numbers of registered voters in seats in three northern cities – Rawalpindi, Nowshera and Charsadda - conceding miscalculations.

"Inaccuracies in FAFEN's data might have been due to human errors by volunteer citizen observers," the organization said in a press release.

"The errors also could be due to changes in the polling station numbers as listed in the polling schemes," it said.

Three days after that retraction, 16 legal complaints were filed against FAFEN's Rizvi for "providing erroneous information regarding the conduct of the polls," according to Deputy Inspector General Jawad Ahmad Dogar, a senior police official in eastern city Lahore.

Local electoral officers filed the complaints against FAFEN in Punjab provincial capital Lahore and the remote southern Punjabi town of Rahim Yar Khan on May 17, accusing it of "misreporting the results of some polling stations" by claiming voter turnout exceeded the number of registered voters, Dogar told UPI Next.

FAFEN then called on "political parties and state authorities to stop harassment, intimidation, persecution and prosecution of the Network."

In its May 17 statement, it said Rizvi had reportedly been implicated in 16 cases, with legal complaints filed in in Lahore and Rahim Yar Khan, but said it had "a note from the office" of a Lahore electoral officer "which shows questionable intent."

The only purpose of filing the legal complaints "is harassment by those who feel threatened by FAFEN's reports and demands. Other groups are protesting on the streets and issuing accusations of 'rigging' the elections, but only FAFEN is being targeted," the statement said.

FAFEN maintains the rest of its allegations, which included a claim of unauthorized stamping of ballots by MQM activists in one of the 20 federal constituencies in Karachi, a megacity of 21 million people on Pakistan's southern coast.

The MQM has traditionally been the city's dominant political force. Founded in 1984 by Altaf Hussain, the MQM originally represented the city's Urdu-speaking Muhajirs, Muslims who emigrated to Pakistan following the 1947 partition of the subcontinent. Hussain rules the party from London, where he lives in exile.

Jamaat-e-Islami, a religious party, withdrew its candidates from Karachi seats, accusing the MQM of irregularities.

The MQM denied all allegations of electoral misconduct.

The MQM held 17 of Karachi's 20 National Assembly seats after the 2008 elections. Its hold on power in Karachi was challenged in the lead-up to last month's vote by the newly popular party of ex-cricket hero Imran Khan, the Tehreek-e-Insaf. Nevertheless it picked up an extra seat in this year's polls, giving it a total of 18 seats in the new federal parliament.

In the Karachi constituency where MQM supporters allegedly stamped ballots, that party's candidate, Khushbakht Shujaat ran against PTI candidate Arif Alvi

In response to the charges, the Electoral Commission of Pakistan held new votes in 43 polling stations in the constituency. The MQM boycotted the new polling in protest and the PTI's Arif Alvi won.

Election officials conceded that "serious incidents of fraud, intimidation and voting irregularities were witnessed" in some of Karachi's polling stations.

"The ECP admits that it failed to hold free and fair elections in Karachi city," the commission's Secretary Ishtiak Ahmad Khan told UPI Next.

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