Investigation finds that former special assistant to the Punjab C.M. Firdous Ashiq Awan was part of meetings convened to pressure POs
The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) on Friday issued a report on its probe into the Daska (NA-75) by-elections of February, concluding that election officials, police and the district administration had been involved in attempts to rig it on the orders of “their unlawful masters.”
The by-polls were hotly contested between candidates of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz). Both parties accused each other of rigging, especially in light of unrest on the polling day and the “disappearance” of over 20 presiding officers for several hours. In light of the irregularities, the ECP had withheld the results of the polls and ordered a re-election, which was conducted in April. The PMLN’s Syeda Nosheen Iftikhar won the polls against the PTI’s Ali Asjad Malhi in April; the PTI had claimed victory in February.
According to the inquiry report—submitted by the Punjab joint election commissioner to the ECP—“a constant observatory force drove or goaded” presiding officers, who failed to perform their duties. It said that the statements given by the presiding officers who had disappeared had suggested that they had concealed facts about their absence and the irregularities found during polling.
The report claimed that the POs had blamed police, but their statements had failed to justify their own “negligence” and poor administration. “In fact, their manipulated replies in the investigation of being taken to unknown places and any interaction or forceful approach by someone further aired the suspicion that they were vindicated or backed up by someone,” it says, adding that senior assistant presiding officers had supported this suspicion.
“Circumstantial evidence, written statements of some POs, SAPOs, most of the drivers and very few of the police personnel and CDR data from the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority clearly prove that aforesaid POs, under some planned scheme, left their respective polling stations in private vehicles and reached Sialkot by staying first at Qila Kalar Wala Police Station/Satra Police Station, office of the DSP, Pasrur and Mundeke etc. around after nearly 08:30pm,” read the report, adding that they had remained in an “unknown building” for over seven hours before being transported by police to the office of the returning officer in Jaisarwala. “Before reaching their destination, all the POs were shifted in police vans from a Toyota Hiace,” it added.
The inquiry report noted that most of the POs had failed to send the results of their respective polling stations through WhatsApp or submit original results. It also specifically identified Daska Deputy Education Officer Farkhanda Yasmeen as having met with POs at her personal residence and instructing them to “favor the government in the said by-election, allow the voters to cast their votes on copies of NIC [national identity card], act upon the guidelines received from [her] during polling and not to bother about the law and order situation if turned untoward.” Similarly, it alleged that Sialkot Colleges Deputy Director Muhammad Iqbal Kaloya had held meetings at the Daska assistant commissioner’s residence to manipulate the election process. These meetings, it said, were also attended by former special assistant to the Punjab chief minister Firdous Ashiq Firdous Ashiq Awan, as well as other senior officials.
In one meeting, the report said that Kolaya had called POs to the office of the Daska Government Degree College for Boys’ principal and instructed them to slow down the voting process; close the polling stations early; return to the RO office as soon as possible; and not interfere in any actions being taken by police and the district administration.
“These disclosed facts convincingly take us to the point that mishap in the by-election not just involves the negligence or maladministration of the POs. It was a preplanned scam that could not be possible without the reinforcement from their controlling departments while they also paved the path for other persons’ involvement in this wicked game,” it added.
The ECP investigation also found that 17 POs had requested an exemption from by-election duties, adding that their scrutiny had discovered that the “handwriting on all TCS envelopes [containing the requests] was same that created further doubts.” It said TCS had confirmed that all the requests were sent on the same day from three different TCS centers in Sialkot, suggesting “that those requests were managed by someone sitting in Sialkot who deliberately acted to hamper the by-election process and managed to induct his/their own blue-eyed ones.”
The report notes that all the available facts make it clear “that the activities of POs were suspicious, they became puppets in the hands of their controlling authority and even the replies submitted by them in response to the allegations of this maligned act were completely stereotyped and deceptive.”
The report has also alleged that police played a part in the rigging of the Daska by-polls. They accomplished this, it said, with police personnel patrolling their jurisdictions on polling day, even entering polling stations and met polling staff. “They committed a breach of their designated duty,” it said, stressing that rather than taking care of polling staff and arranging their safe transport, police had “kept their eyes close” and helped to illegal transport the POs to “some suspicious place at Sialkot or elsewhere.”
It said that the DSP Daska had tried to keep in touch with the police transporting the POs but they had not paid any mind to him. “After the close of poll, either they went to their police stations or their homes for rest and they were least interested in the 20 missing POs from their jurisdiction,” it added.
The report also points out that the RO and the district returning officer had failed to play their designated roles “with due responsibility and dedication,” noting that they had shifted their roles to staff and had either been unaware or willfully ignorant of the illegal activities taking place.
The report concludes by recommending that senior assistant presiding officers be required to remain with POs from the point they collect election material from the RO’s office a day before elections till they return the material after the polls. It said that ROs should also maintain a log of vehicles used for transporting POs, in addition to details on the number of people traveling, and their time of arrival and departure. POs, it said, could be fitted with a tracker to ensure their location was available at all times.
The ECP inquiry also recommends against posting ROs and DROs to any administrative position, and keeping them away from activities related to elections. It says that SOPs should be devised to ensure no private individuals are deputed with POs at polling stations.