The election to the Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly on June 8, 2015 witnessed an impressive turnout of voters in a peaceful and well-managed polling process. However, the vote counting and result consolidation processes were not accessible to independent observers.
Despite an efficient accreditation process by the Election Commission of Gilgit-Baltistan (ECGB), the principles of electoral transparency appeared not to have been shared with the government and security officials, who obstructed particularly observers to the results consolidation process.
Due to the heavy presence of army personnel and police officials inside and outside polling stations, observers faced difficulties entering the polling stations. The security officials did not allow observers to observe the polling and counting process in some polling stations.
As many as 13 political parties fielded their candidates to contest 24 Legislative Assembly seats in seven districts of the region. However, the number of women contestants for the general seats remained low, as only five women were in the contest for six seats. PPPP and PTI gave one ticket each to women candidates, while three women candidates contested independently. The PTI candidate contested for two seats in Ghanche district.
Despite the adoption of the Representation of People Act 1976, the final list of polling stations was neither gazetted by the respective DROs nor was it published and distributed among the contesting candidates and other election stakeholders.
Election Day complaints were registered with ROs in five constituencies. The presiding officers in GBLA-13 (Astore-I) complained that voters were not aware of the election symbols allotted to the contesting candidates and that female voters were totally unaware of the voting process. In the same constituency, JUI-F and PTI registered complaints that the voters at certain polling stations were being forced to vote for some candidates, while an independent candidate complained that unauthorized persons were present in some polling stations of the constituency.
Political parties also accused the polling staff of favoring certain political parties at some polling stations of GBLA-3, Gilgit-III. Similarly, independent candidates, along with political parties, complained that the voting process was progressing too slowly and that the RO did not allow the candidates to visit polling stations in GBLA-21, Ghizer-III.
Although the overall quality of elections in Gilgit-Baltistan was better compared to the election quality in other regions of Pakistan, some inconsistencies in implementation of voting processes were visible.
Polling staff continued to overlook important steps, such as filling and stamping the counterfoils and marking the back of the ballot with official stamp and signature which may render a vote objectionable and lead to the rejection of vote during the counting process.
Presiding officers allowed some polling agents to sit and observe the polling without candidate’s signature on their authority letter while others were not allowed to do so. Similarly, there were several polling stations where the secrecy screens were set in a manner that polling agents and/or polling staff could see the voters stamping the ballot. In addition, army personnel stood too close to the secrecy screen, which again compromised the secrecy of the ballot.
Political parties and contesting candidates were freely breaching the legal restriction of no canvassing within a 400 meters radius around polling stations. At some polling stations political parties and independent candidates had set up camps close to the polling stations. Campaigning and canvassing of voters went on freely at these camps, with no action reported from anywhere to curb these activities.
Furthermore, the presiding officers at these polling stations divided the time for polling such that the male voters would vote during the first four hours while the female voters would vote during the latter half of the day.
The ECGB did not set up any combined polling station in the entire Diamer district. Although appropriate staffing was made at female polling stations, initial reports suggested that the local communities continued with their decadent practice of disenfranchising women in many polling areas. For instance, women in Gumari area of Darel valley were barred from voting. Some other yet unconfirmed reports suggest women voting took place only at a few polling stations.
It can rightly be said that other regions of Pakistan could do well to emulate the example of GB polls.
The voters in Gilgit Baltistan need to be praised for their discipline and enthusiasm for the polls. There was a substantial turnout and it appears that despite some initial fears, conservative elements could not succeed in preventing the women from participating in the elections.
To the credit of the GB election commission, the polling material was reported to have been delivered in time, polling started at the scheduled hour and there were few complaints of late arrival of staff, or staff trying to manipulate the voting. Polling agents for the candidates were generally facilitated at all the polling stations.
The use of voters’ list based on NADRA’s record was well received and led to weeding out of duplicate votes, and the around 750,000 votes in the 2009 GBLA elections were cut down to 615,000 votes this time around. There had been few objections to the voters’ list although some complaints were received over the location of polling stations.
This is not to say that the elections were perfect. Indeed many things could have been improved and prevented. Controversy about the choice of the governor and the constitution and size of the caretaker cabinet could have been avoided. There were at least some complaints that the ink used for marking voters’ thumbs was not indelible. Also, leading up to the elections, there had been numerous complaints of the use of state machinery. At least some of these were in response to important leaders of the ruling party in the center addressing public gatherings and making promises during the GBLA election campaign. They can at the very least be faulted for making these announcements which, on account of their timing, seemed to be designed to influence the voters’ choice.
The demand for GBLA elections to be held simultaneously with the general elections elsewhere in the country is a thoroughly justified one. Synchronised elections across the country would not only address grievances regarding attempts to influence and interfere in the GBLA elections from the center but will also make sure that even such a perception does not arise.
A number of violations of the code of conduct for elections did come to light during the polls. These included the candidates setting up their camps closer to the polling station than they were permitted, hoardings and banners larger than the approved size and candidates pasting their posters at polling stations. However, no single party had monopoly over such violations and all were guilty of indulging in such tactics.
A matter of great alarm and bitter disappointment has been the fact that banned militant organisations managed to openly display their flags and solicited votes under their banner. That is a slur on an otherwise praise-worthy effort that must be condemned.