Free and fair elections are the pivotal element for the establishment of a truly representative democratic system, but more than often in Pakistan the electoral process is impaired by acts of intimidation and outbursts of violence. As a result, the credibility of the elections is undermined and the trust of citizenry in the electoral process is left fragile. Moreover, the loss of precious lives in electoral violence not only stigmatizes the performance of security personnel but leaves behind long lasting emotional scars of grievance and anguish on many families. A few such deplorable incidents of electoral violence were witnessed in the first phase of Local Government Elections (LGE) 2015 in Punjab and Sindh provinces.
September 31, the day of polling for first phase of LGE in 12 districts of Punjab and eight districts of Sindh was indeed an important day. It was after 10 years that an election for Local Government representatives was being undertaken in the two provinces. Despite extensive preparations and comprehensive set of guidelines issued by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) for security personnel, political parties, election observers and media persons etc, and careful security arrangements, violence could not be avoided. Armed conflicts between supporters of rival political parties in various districts of Sindh and Punjab, such as Khirpur, Sargodha and Faisalabad etc resulted in a loss of more than 15 lives and left many others injured. We need to understand the dynamics that led people to engage in acts of violence so that any incidents of such nature could be averted in the future.
Electoral violence is not a phenomenon limited to Pakistan and the risk of violence is present in almost every election. Coming to the question that what leads to electoral violence? There can be various answers. However, the most rational explanation is that electoral violence takes place when the leaders or supporters of certain political party believe that the electoral process is unfair and biased. In this case, the electoral process might be unfair in actual, perceived to be so or it might just be a desperate accusation to save face. Whichever the reason for grievance might be, the political supporters find a justification to raise allegation on the credibility of electoral process and, unable to find a quick remedial solution, engage in violence. Taking further this explanation, several lacunas in the electoral process during LGE can be observed if we put it under scrutiny.
When we look at media and election observer reports we find a failure of compliance with the ECP’s guidelines for the conduct of election and non-observation of the roles and responsibilities assigned to the various stakeholders and, thus, hold it as the key factor contribution to the wide unrest. Various reports from Sindh’s districts of Khairpur, Shikarpur and Ghotki, pointing out delay in voting and mismanagement due to late arrival of polling staff and election material were received and violence was later observed in both Khairpur and Shikarpur during the day. Allegations by political parties and supporters of votes being transferred, delayed arrival of polling officers and interference by security personnel were also raised by others in Lahore. Moreover, election observers in several areas reported of not being allowed to observe the elections as directed by the ECP. Scuffles are still continuing with all the mainstream political parties calling the elections rigged in certain area/s or the other, steaming up the emotions of their supporters that might result in further violence. There can be no second opinion that this bloodshed has got to stop.
All of us, whether as individuals or institutions need to learn from these incidents and take corrective action to proactively curb electoral violence. The most important responsibility goes on the shoulders of ECP and law enforcing agencies. ECP should require the development of detailed plans to curtail violence on the day of elections by the DPOs of the respective districts. The plans must include the risk assessment via mapping of the various polling stations and assignment of responsibilities at the police station level- the SHO must be held accountable for any untoward incidents. Moreover, guidelines for security personnel should be thoroughly discussed and shared with the law enforcement authorities for the commencement of clean, fair and violence free elections. Oversight committees of ECP at district level to monitor security personnel can be established to conduct field monitoring throughout the Election Day and the DPOs must remain accessible and vigilant to the complaints of the public. The electoral rights of the people must be held sacred and, for that it is the responsibility of the law enforcement authorities to respect and protect the people from any violent incidents and maintaining peace and order during the elections.
Deployment of army troops or rangers should always be taken as the last option to control emergency situations and should not be considered desirable. The civilian security personnel must be prepared and equipped to handle all such situations warranting enforcement of law and taking necessary action. Meddling in the affairs of security personnel by any political party, during elections, must be reported to ECP and must be considered a serious breach of law. A foolproof procedure for security personnel that supports and protects the whistle blower against any influential person must also be present so that the security personnel can do their duties without any bias or interference. Appointment of army troops and rangers at places only where probability of high magnitude violence is prevalent is pragmatic as it will help manage a fair, clean and violence free polling. Moreover, as people, irrespective of their political parties, have greater trust and respect for the army it is easier to ensure that not political meddling in electoral process takes place and that possibility of violence in that area can be minimized.
Another important measure that can be helpful in overcoming violence on the Election Day is to install security cameras at the sensitive polling stations or the polling stations with a history of electoral violence. Authorities and ECP should take this responsibility to install, check and re-check the cameras installed. Moreover, the footage of the polling station should be obtained in order to investigate any violent incident at the polling station to identify the culprits.
Furthermore, election observers and media agencies must be allowed to perform their duties as identified under the ECP’s code of conduct. In the presence of media and election observers there would be less chances of election irregularities and not only would the credibility of the electoral process be enhanced, but people would be more less likely to take resort to violence, realizing that their grievances are recorded and voices heard.
A big responsibility also rests on the political parties, contesting candidates, and us, the supporters. The political parties and the contesting candidates should respect the law and abide by ECP’s code of conduct for political parties in the true spirit and should devise strict instructional plans for their members to ensure violence free elections. It is the responsibility of the parties participating to educate their party members and supporters to keep in mind the rules and regulations of ECP and that they must abide by them. We, as individuals, have a great share of responsibility on our shoulders as well. We should be aware of the rules and regulations of ECP and should always respect the law. We must realize that our political differences must never lead to making us hate and despise one another. We must live with reason and shun the culture of carried away by our party affiliations and emotions. We must remain vigilant with rational minds and report irregularities, if any, to the respective authorities and never take the law in our own hands. We must all realize that whether our supporting candidate wins or not, no life is worth losing for any political gain. Let us all stand united against electoral violence.