Another fixed election in Pakistan?

As I sit down to pen my thoughts on Pakistan’s 2024 elections, I find myself grappling with a mix of emotions – hope, concern, and an overarching sense of urgency. The events that unfolded on February 8th of that year marked a pivotal moment in Pakistan’s democratic journey, leaving an indelible imprint on the nation’s political landscape.

Picture this: former Prime Minister Imran Khan, a charismatic yet controversial figure, confined behind bars, facing a staggering 150 charges. As the country geared up for the polls, an air of optimism lingered, only to be quashed by the de facto ban imposed on Imran Khan’s party, the Pakistan Movement for Justice (PTI). The loss of their political insignia echoed a silent but powerful blow to the democratic spirit.

Yet, against these odds, the PTI displayed resilience, ingeniously manoeuvering to field independent candidates in both national and provincial elections.

Election season in Pakistan is a vibrant spectacle, a celebration of democracy where citizens adorn their surroundings with banners of political allegiance. However, this festive atmosphere is invariably tainted by the persistent spectres of corruption and electoral rigging, exacerbated by the country’s reliance on a paper-based voting system.

Prime Minister Khan, in an earnest bid to restore faith in the electoral process, championed the introduction of voting machines.

Alas, this progressive move encountered resistance from the Election Commission, casting shadows on the prospects of a transparent election.

The unfolding drama of the 2024 election was nothing short of a political thriller. As results trickled in on that fateful evening, a concoction of distress and surprise gripped the nation. Independent candidates, buoyed by PTI support, emerged victorious, capturing a significant vote share. A staggering 70% voter turnout, coupled with

20 million new voters painted a canvas of democratic enthusiasm, particularly among the youth ardently rallying behind Imran Khan.

The narrative took an unexpected turn as serpentine queues formed outside polling stations, forcing an early closure at 5:00 PM. This deviation from the norm, where poll times were often extended due to voter queues, set the stage for a series of unforeseen events. The Election Commission’s promise of releasing results by 10:00 PM Pakistani Standard Time became a fleeting illusion as the realization dawned – independent candidates were on the cusp of a two-thirds majority.

The twist in the tale came in the form of a breakdown in the voting application, a peculiar occurrence that persisted until the wee hours of the morning. The delay in result announcements extended for 24 agonizing hours, ultimately revealing the triumph of independents with 94 – 95 seats, overshadowing the second-largest party’s tally of approximately 55 – 60 seats.

However, this victory was marred by the haunting echoes of foul play.

In the city of Sialkot, renowned for football manufacturing, former Defence Minister Khawaja Asif faced a formidable challenge from an unlikely contender—an 80-year-old independent candidate named Rihana Dar. Her poignant backstory of police oppression against her son struck a chord, leading her to a substantial lead.

Yet, the official polls, disseminated through media channels and backed by ballot papers like RJ45, raised unsettling questions about the authenticity of the results. The government’s decision to release results contradicted earlier polling data, indicating a loss for Rihana Dar and a significant gain for Khawaja Asif, all with just 1% of polling stations remaining.

As I delve deeper into this electoral labyrinth, a curious chapter unfolds – a chapter involving the venerable former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the enigmatic R47 form. Allegations of rigging and manipulation cast a dark shadow over the electoral process, with instances suggesting that even Nawaz Sharif fell victim to calculated outcomes.

In the NA 130 Lahore constituency, the discrepancies reached absurd heights. Total votes cast exceeded the total votes, and 14 candidates, including one from the third-largest party, received a baffling 0 votes. This blatant irregularity throws the credibility of the entire electoral process into question.

The situation in Pakistan stands at a precipice, as President Arif Alvi wisely cautions against further destabilization.

The looming uncertainty portends a potentially unstable period for this nuclear-armed nation.

As a liberal, democratic advocate, my plea resonates beyond borders.

The parallels drawn with the 1970 election in Pakistan, resulting in a civil war and the birth of Bangladesh, serve as a stark reminder of the consequences of undermining the voice of the people.

In the face of restricted freedoms, escalating violence, and the ominous spectre of chaos, the clarion call is evident – democratic nations must unite against such atrocities. The people of Pakistan, much like their counterparts in the United Kingdom, deserve the unequivocal right to voice their opinions without interference from those in uniform. The consequences of continued negligence could plunge the nation into a perilous abyss, echoing the painful lessons not learned from the Dhaka disaster of the 1970s.

* Mo Waqas is a member in Middlesbrough and the PPC for Middlesbrough and Thornaby East.

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  • Steve Trevethan 10th Feb '24 - 11:05am

    Thank you for a detailed and interesting article which sheds a bright light on electoral and main stream media machinations in Pakistan. It also, importantly, presents British citizens with a clear and powerful warning to work still harder against the spreading tendrils of political and main stream media machinations to distort and subvert our second rate democracy.

  • Thank you Mo Waqas. An informative and salutory comment.

  • Alex Macfie 13th Feb '24 - 1:50pm

    Why is introducing voting machines supposed to be a “progressive move”? Electronic voting is a Very Bad Idea. The audit trails needed to ensure the integrity of the voting system is inherently incompatible with the secret ballot. There is no way of telling whether the numbers spewed out by the machine bear any relation at all to the votes cast without violating the secret ballot. Surely we have learnt from the Post Office Horizon scandal about the danger of blind faith in computer systems. If the Election Commission is resisting e-voting, then it should be praised not blamed.

  • Nonconformistradical 13th Feb '24 - 2:14pm

    Alex McFie is absolutely right about voting machines. We can see the count of ballot papers in UK elections and see for ourselves that they tally with the counts of ballot papers issued for each ballot box. I’m not saying that mistakes are never made but usually they come to light fairly quickly.

    And there have been cases where election results have been challenged successfully via election petitions – because the ballot paper evidence is available (for a while.

    With voting machines there are no possibilities for lay people to examine the votes and we’d be expected to have ‘blind faith’ in the counting system – and we’d be told ‘the computer’s right’ – ha ha ha

  • One solution would be to do both: Have people vote via a machine that records the person’s vote and also creates a paper copy. That way the electronic machines can provide a very quick result once ballots have closed, but the paper trail is still there to be counted manually if any reason to question the electronic result comes up.

    Probably not too important with the UK’s current system, but might become essential if we ever did adopt STV, considering how complex that is to count.

  • Peter Davies 13th Feb '24 - 4:35pm

    There are many kinds of voting machines. The better ones produce a more reliable paper trail than paper voting as well as a digital record which is harder to fake than a stuffed ballot box. Of course if the people in charge of the entire election are corrupt, they can announce whatever result they like and prevent access to either the paper or digital evidence that contradicts it.

  • David Evans 13th Feb '24 - 6:46pm

    It’s interesting to see how people split on electronic voting, and it is almost entirely based on instinct and one line answers to very complex problems. However, anyone who can support “electronic voting machines” – i.e. computers – really has to decide whose side they think they should be on in the Post Office Horizon case.

    Paper based voting and manual counting if managed correctly works just fine for a reasonably small size of count (up to about 50 to 60,000 votes). Also at present our system is just about well enough understood and organised to enable ordinary people (i.e. counting agents) to monitor it real time while it is happening, so incorrect management can be stopped well before results are declared. This is vital.

    Once results are declared, the game is over and correction is effectively impossible. Just think Al Gore v GW Bush, Florida count, where the pressure on AG to stop being a sore loser, despite there being substantial problems with the mechanised count, soon became immense.

  • Peter Davies 13th Feb '24 - 8:39pm

    Any system is likely to work almost everywhere in the UK because the local authority civil servants who run it overwhelmingly believe in democracy. In Pakistan where many have got their position through political influence, paper elections were very easily fixed. In this election, a majority of seats were won by the candidate the rulers didn’t want. Electronic voting helped make that possible.

  • Peter Davies 13th Feb '24 - 8:44pm

    @David Evans your comparison of Horizon and Florida voting machines may sound like a cheap shot but there are parallels. In both cases the problem is a contract in which the customer had no interest in the system working correctly and a strong interest in ensuring everyone else believed it.

  • Denis Mollison 15th Feb '24 - 11:42pm

    For Scottish council elections (using STV) we have paper ballots but they are counted by electronically. They give more reliable counts (in the 4 hand recounts in NE Fife in 2017 the winner changed each time) but maintain a paper record available for any challenge.
    I find it interesting that in the technologically leading country of the US electronic voting is thought by many to be unreliable and inferior to hand counting, while the reverse is true in the technologically relatively backward country of Pakistan.

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