The inquiry report on NA-75 Daska is now available to most of us. Selected parts have been amplified as per the interests of the reader and stakeholder concerned. For me, it is not a case of 20 missing Presiding Officers (PO). Instead, it is a case of institutional mismanagement of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) while it was supposed to be delivering on its core mandate; and a crashing of the accountability slogans that were the at the core of electioneering for the sitting government.
Blame game is a strand running through this inquiry report. The report talks a lot about the role of the persons that were investigated; but is silent about the institutions and their disappointing institutional performance i.e. from the ECP to the Government of Punjab.
The conduct of elections and by-elections is within the constitutional mandate of the ECP. This is one core functions that the Commission and its staff knows and signs on for at the time when they join the institution. Yet for each general and local government election, and at times in by-elections, the staff undergoes refreshers. Special measures were put in place for the General Election 2018 i.e. command & control unit/team under the Election Wing with provincial outreach; use of technology i.e. GPS for polling stations; deployment of security cameras at the sensitive polling stations; and a Result Transmission System (RTS) being among the better known initiatives. One would have expected the same to be employed during the by-election Daska- NA-7, given that it was a known politically contested constituency.
An inquiry into an issue like NA 75, besides detailing what went wrong, provides an opportunity to not only bring out the political economy of incident but undertake institutional introspection. Unfortunately, the inquiry report misses out on both counts.
Let’s chart out what it does not talk about:
1. Was there an internal political and security assessment pre-rollout of the election schedule on 21.12.2020 or post announcement, so as to structure the approach to conduct and manage the by-election?
2. The Provincial Election Commissioner (PEC) Punjab was administrative lead of this by-election and his team was to act in management support function. What was their role?
a. Why did they not have a security assessment of the constituency?
b. Why did they not identify sensitive polling stations?
c. Why were security cameras not installed at polling stations even randomly?
3. The role of the District Monitoring Officer (DMO) for the by-election starts along with announcement of the election schedule and remains active till poll day. Except lip service, the DMO was not getting support from the district administration.
a. Was it reported to the PEC Punjab? If yes, what happened?
b. Was it raised to the knowledge of the ECP and then what happened?
c. The security issue was known in January 2021 meetings and non-cooperation of District police was also obvious when the copies of FIR were not provided to the DMO. Did he raise the issue before the PEC? What happened? Was the ECP informed?
d. The code of conduct was being violated mostly by sitting government supporters yet strict action was not taken and the ball was pushed between office of DMO and DC
e. DMO wrote an email to the Chief Secretary of the Government of Punjab about the non-cooperation of the DC Sialkot; but why were the PEC, Secretary ECP or CEC not involved – knowing very well where it was leading
f. How come the DMO remained unaware of the POs being trained on election by the Special Secretary Education for the Government of Punjab?
4. The District Returning Officer (DRO) was the Regional Election Commissioner (REC), Lahore; and the Returning Officer (RO) was the District Election Commissioner (DEC), Narowal. Both had prime responsibilities to not only conduct and manage the election but to coordinate with provincial and district government.
a. Both officers clearly could not pull their institutional weight (which is hardly much anyways) over officers of District (District Administration, Police, Education, etc.) and at the provincial government level for both coordination and in a supervisory capacity being designated DRO and RO.
b. The political pressures are obvious in the report as indirectly pushed in shape of the not-so-cooperative role of the District Administration and Chief Secretary of the Punjab government, yet they failed to raise a red flag to the PEC and/or the ECP. And if they did, what happened to that?
c. Both continued to engage operationally at Assistant Commissioner (AC) and DSP level for coordination except formal meetings with Deputy Commissioner (DC), District Police Officer (DPO) and Regional Police Officer (RPO) Gujranwala, who remained unavailable to them when law & order was an issue
d. Both claimed to know the district and constituency well, yet they did not push for a security briefing, concrete security plan and/or raise the need for installing security cameras in sensitive polling stations. If they did, what happened to it?
e. The DRO /RO chose to write a letter to the District Police on the security plan. It is obvious that they were unable to manage coordination, and yet did not raise a flag. That the RO could not even make the police on duty at his office follow his order to stop people coming to his office at the result tabulation time says it all.
f. The law and order issue on poll day started 3-4 hours into polling. That means between 11 am to 1pm there was aerial firing, vandalism and polling partially being stopped. Both preferred to watch it on TV and not visit the spot. They did not raise a high alert with the PEC, provincial government and/or the CEC. And if they did, what happened to it?
g. RTS was used in modified version i.e. instead of using the app, an image of Form 45 was to be sent via Whatsapp. How could the DRO, RO, PEC and ECP not know that signals and data services will be restricted, and it will not be possible to send the image? What was alternate plan, as it had already happened in the General Elections 2018?
h. If WhatsApp could be used to be a modified RTS, why was it that a group of Presiding Officers (PO) and polling staff (by designation) could not be created for coordination in case of emergency?
i. The Transportation Committee was headed by the DRO, yet he did not have a plan or even information on vehicles and deployment. Why did the RO did not act as a back-up to coordinate during Result Tabulation?
Institutional coordination between ECP and provincial government at all levels was weak from the word ‘go’
5. Was there a command, control or coordination unit at the PEC or the ECP Islamabad? If yes, who was heading it and what did it do?
6. Who was calling the shots?
a. The district Education department cannot do it. The Chief Education Officer (CEO) at any District is lower in power and control chain.
b. Who ordered the Special Secretary Education of the provincial government to visit the district and speak to Pos?
c. Was it Ms. Firdous Ashiq Awan alone that managed 20 POs, through the PA of the CEO Sialkot to an ASI?
d. Who provided and owned those private cars to ferry 20 POs?
e. Which building were the POs taken to and who owns it?
f. What happened to the mobile CDR of the AC, DC and DPO Sialkot? And whose orders were being complied with by them?
g. On whose orders was it that officials from the Chief Secretary to DC to DPO turned their phones off? And what happened to live wireless with them?
h. What was the role of elected leadership of the provincial government i.e. the Chief Minister
The security situation, or the status of law and order, was the core cause of re-poll at Daska. The fact remains that the situation on poll day was developing since 11 am and yet the DRO informs the inquiry that “As the security was restored and seemed under control, he did not consider it necessary to talk to the DPO or RPO.” One wonders what time frame could that be in? The RO was not sure of the actual number of police personnel present at the polling station or those who were being sent with vehicles. Interestingly, the ones who were promptly reachable and could act when security went out of hand were the CEC and Chenab Rangers. The female PO Saba Maryam is the only one that has spilled the beans and must be protected physically.
The inquiry report tells us that:
1. The blatant use of provincial and district administration and the role of its elected representatives – from the level of candidates to local party members and power holders of the PTI government – paints a picture of shame for the ruling party and its accountability sloganeering. The report informs us that meetings were held “at AC House, Daska, which were meant for manipulating the election process in which Mr. Ali Abbas, Mr. Zeeshan Javed, Mr. Asif Hussain, Dr. Firdous Ashiq Awan, Mr. Muhammad Awais and some other persons were present.”
2. Intimidating POs has been employed historically by previous governments as well. But keeping them hostage is a new low. Almost all POs who chose to inform the inquiry report stated they were directed on 18.02.2021 that:
a. they were to slow down the voting process;
b. the turn-out must not surpass 25% in Daska city area;
c. they were not to interfere in the activities of the district administration and police – allowing them to do as they pleased;
d. they were to close the polling station at 04:30 PM with the help of police;
e. they were to cooperate with the District Administration; and
f. they were to return to the RO office as early as possible
3. The ECP, despite having a constitutional mandate to conduct elections, is dependent on the sitting government’s machinery to conduct elections. The delegated constitutional powers are hardly applied – which tends to tip the ‘power scale’ to the disadvantage of the ECP.
4. The CEC was not only proactive but directly available to the DRO and RO – and took immediate action when the security situation slipped out of hand. In fact, the CEC later established the institutional writ of the ECP but the role of the PEC remains grey.
5. The institutional role of the ECP at a federal level for command, control and coordination appears to be either at a distance or not actively connected to the field.
a. The report does not talk about any such mechanism in place that was used for crisis management
b. It does not seem as if authorities have learned from the lessons and/or mistakes of the GE 2018 i.e. partial usage of RTS via WhatsApp despite knowing that internet connectivity will be an issue
6. The office of the Provincial Election Commission Punjab appeared to be not as active as it should have been. In fact, this office:
a. was ill-prepared for a poll in a sensitive constituency as they did not undertake any security or political assessment to plan accordingly
b. did not have backup or alternate planning despite obvious institutional disconnect for even coordination from the provincial government to district level.
c. failed to intervene when the political thermostat was rising visibly yet the by-election was rolled out as “business as usual” and neither polling stations declared sensitive nor security cameras installed
d. demonstrated weak management, coordination and supervision from the PEC to DRO.
7. Institutional coordination between ECP and provincial government at all levels was weak from the word ‘go.’ The provincial government had a posturing of institutional bullying down to the district level. The ECP staff, even with delegated powers to over-ride district administration, could not pull their institutional weight as they are at a lower rung in institutional power hierarchy – e.g. the DRO can’t get his phone attended on the poll day or before by the DC; and a PO despite having magisterial powers is blackmailed and managed by an ASI.
8. The ECP needs to restructure its functioning along modern lines, especially election management, i.e. logistics for polling staff. Election supplies and transport need a structured management plan, that may involve GPS in official vehicles on duty, for example – rather than an ad hoc committee system.
The findings of the inquiry report are watered down, especially for its own staff, from the DRO, RO and DMO by stating that there was lack of coordination. Whereas they should have been calling the shots under the command of the PEC and CEC. Since they failed at all levels, there should be a penalty for them.
The police, district administration and education department’s role is beyond obvious and bears out the idea that the independence of the ECP can’t be maintained when it has administrative dependency. The ECP holds the power of apex court in such cases and can order punishment for the officers of the district administration who had clear involvement in gerrymandering and not providing support to the ECP in implementation of its constitutional duty.
Above all, the names of elected representatives and political persons indicated in the report should also be investigated, so as to determine as to whether or not they are truly ‘sadiq’ and ‘amin’ enough to hold public office.