Violence. Rigging claims. No one said the elections would be a cakewalk.
[dropcap]H[/dropcap]ours after the polls closed on May 11, Marvi Memon posted pictures online of her supporters killed in rural Sindh. “Democracy!” she wrote, sharing a photo of a badly-injured man lying in hospital. “Anver dead,” she said introducing another gruesome image. Memon kept updating her 117,800-plus followers on Twitter about the day’s overlooked atrocities. She spoke of her campaign workers being shot and abducted, polling stations being taken over by gunmen, and firearms being used to coerce voters. “Army not around yet, it’s a mess,” she wrote. “This is no election. This is a bloodbath.” By day’s end, three of her supporters had been murdered.
With violence by the Taliban and political parties, rampant violations of the Election Commission of Pakistan’s code of conduct, the endless acrimony and tireless protests over actual and perceived voting irregularities on polling day, the elections were every bit as contentious as had been widely expected. But now every political party has to scale back the rhetoric, if they haven’t started to already, to preserve the sanctity of their own mandate and to effect a moment of national moving on.
According to the European Union’s Election Observation Mission, 64 people were killed on May 11 in 62 elections-related incidents of violence. (All parties, including the Pakistan Peoples Party, have claimed to have been targeted by armed goons from non-Taliban rivals on Election Day.) News of that day’s Taliban bombings were aired on television halfheartedly and then dropped, perhaps so as not to discourage voters. Despite the threat of carnage from the militants, some 47.4 million Pakistanis voted—the highest number in the country’s history.
Acknowledging its lapses, the Election Commission cancelled polling in some constituencies and extended voting time in Karachi (it said it had failed to conduct free and fair elections in the country’s largest city) by three hours and across Pakistan by one. In the days that followed, the dead were forgotten altogether as charges of rigging—especially in the Punjab—began flying thick and fast.
Imran Khan accepted the election results with qualification. He said his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf would detail accounts of voting irregularities, and demand recounts and, if necessary, fresh elections in some constituencies. He had originally claimed rigging on four National Assembly seats, in Lahore and Karachi. That number has gone up. “We will demand a recount in 25 Punjab constituencies where we have ample proof of rigging,” he tweeted. “Shocked at [the] scale and brazenness of rigging, especially in Karachi and across Punjab.” Encouraging his supporters from his hospital bed, he said: “The growing protests against massive rigging in Lahore and Karachi [are] by all those who were eyewitnesses to this brazen rigging.” (The PPP has also accepted the results while crying foul about a “national and international conspiracy” against it.)
By press time, based on 206 complaints, the Election Commission had ordered recounts in 20 constituencies and repolling in eight. The galvanized PTI won Karachi’s NA-250 constituency in repolling on May 19, but that’s because the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, facing allegations of murdering a PTI worker hours prior, boycotted.
Recounts are only for close races. In others, where irregularities may have occurred, the margins of victory are too wide to merit further discussion. Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz)’s Memon lost her National Assembly bid to the PPP’s Sadiq Ali Memon by a margin of 63,148 votes. And Zardari’s foster brother defeated her by 27,296 votes, handily winning the Sindh Assembly seat from Thatta. “Overall, we consider these elections free and fair,” Memon told Newsweek. “But in Sindh, the caretaker setup was just not neutral. It was a continuation of the last government.” Memon, who ran for public office for the first time, is shaken by the violence she witnessed, but is determined to continue building on her base in Sindh.
Some 600,000 security personnel, including 70,000 troops, were deputed to keep the peace on May 11. But in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa’s Lakki Marwat, for example, militiamen freely roamed the streets. In the federally-administered tribal areas, women were kept from voting. Violations of the election code were reported across the board, in part because the code was impractical to begin with. Salim Saifullah Khan of the PMLN says his rival from the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Fazl) used religion against him, violating the code. “We continuously told [the Election Commission] that Islam was being exploited in the campaign,” he tells Newsweek. “The JUIF should not have been given a book as their electoral symbol. Their party workers would tell people that the book represented the Quran, so they must vote for it.”
Then there were the cable news channels and social media. The former prematurely declared winners based on nonrepresentative samples leading many to believe there was widespread rigging since the actual results differed from what the channels had originally aired. The latter was a soapbox for outraged voters, especially in Karachi and Lahore, who shared cellphone footage of voter harassment and vote rigging. (Cellphones were not allowed at the polling stations under the election code.) Some of the videos are incriminating, others are not and acquired relevance only through editorializing. TV channels have also shown whole stacks of pre-stamped ballots made available to them, exposing the gravity of the irregularities.
“The polling staff was either helpless or did not seem to mind,” says Zohra Yusuf, chairperson of the nongovernmental Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, of vote violations. Observers of the 42-member coalition of nongovernmental organizations, the Free and Fair Election Network, were subjected to violence and kept from monitoring the vote in certain constituencies. It recorded 861 irregularities at 40 percent of the 5,260 polling stations it monitored. At some polling stations, the turnout reportedly exceeded the total number of registered voters, a clear indication of rigging. FAFEN has, however, declared the elections “relatively free and fair,” perhaps for closure for an election-fatigued nation.
Voters are rightly outraged. There were some serious irregularities, even if it cannot be determined or divined how wide the problem ran. Khan’s promise of a “tsunami” on Election Day also has first-time voters he brought to the polls disappointed. For them, the infallible national hero cannot be wrong: he must have been robbed of victory.
But every party has skin in the game. PMLN will run the governments in Islamabad and in the Punjab and Balochistan provinces. Khan’s PTI will rule Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, and Zardari’s PPP has been reelected in Sindh. Persisting with examining all instances of alleged irregularities would undermine the sanctity of the vote and challenge the legitimacy of the federal and provincial governments. Even the MQM, reviled by other parties and out of power at the center for the first time in over a decade, can do without further controversy. Khan’s demand for a revote in 25 constituencies is also impractical. Even in the farfetched event that there are fresh elections for 25 National Assembly seats and the PTI wins all of them, it would still be an opposition party, and Nawaz Sharif would still be prime minister.
What about the dead? Doesn’t Pakistan owe them, as some have said, the true results of the people’s will? Arif Nizami, the interim information minister, probably got the majority mood about right when he asked everyone to accept the results. The dead, he added, are “martyrs of democracy.”
From our May 31, 2013, issue. For updates, follow the author on Twitter.