THIS should have been the single biggest achievement the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf could have boasted about, but the local bodies elections in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa turned out to be the ruling party’s biggest embarrassment instead.
The opposition that had seen a rout in the 2013 elections and was still reeling from the humiliating defeat at the hands of Imran Khan’s PTI could not have hoped for a better opportunity — the monumental mismanagement in the LB elections that claimed several lives, resulted in disorder and led to widespread accusations of rigging.
To add insult to injury, the PTI’s two coalition partners — the Jamaat-i-Islami and Senior Minister Shahram Tarakai’s Awami Jamhoori Ittehad — joined the chorus, bemoaning that they had been short-changed. The JI went a step further, directly accusing the PTI of rigging the polls and manipulating the results.
The PTI emerged as the single major winner across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa while the opposition parties, the ANP, JUI-F and the PML-N, also regained some lost ground. Surprisingly, the outcome of the LB elections — even if the agitating opposition and PTI’s own coalition partners are alleging that they were rigged — are considered largely in sync with public perception of the party’s popularity.
However, as the chorus over violence and rigging allegations reached a crescendo, some of the noises coming from its own allies, making the PTI quickly point an accusing finger at the Election Commission of Pakistan. The ECP fired back, accusing the KP government of having failed to provide required security.
True, the ECP has capacity issues. But then it has been holding nationwide polls, though ending up taking blame for lapses of almost similar nature, much bigger in scale than the LB elections in KP with a record number of candidates and seats contested.
But, to be fair, the lapses were marginal, concerning missing symbols and other related issues, including whether or not elections of such a magnitude should have been a one-day affair, were not big enough to have caused such a big uproar.
The problem lies somewhere else. The truth lies in the internal government documents and letters filed by the district returning officers –– read deputy commissioners –– and commissioners of all seven divisions.
It should have been clear to the ruling PTI that elections held under the district administration, supported for security reasons by the police, would make the entire exercise questionable. And that’s what happened.
The police had been given Rs350 million to provide security on election day and the force had outlined its security deployment plan, giving the ratio of police deployment on highly sensitive, sensitive and normal polling stations based on assessments provided by the district administration and the intelligence agencies.
Instead the number of policemen deployed turned out to be far smaller than needed. An internal government assessment revealed that the police deployment in the all-important five districts in the so-called Peshawar Valley, comprising Peshawar, Charsadda, Nowshera, Mardan and Swabi, was 25 per cent less than what was planned –– a fact also acknowledged by Chief Minister Pervez Khattak during the multi-party conference.
It were these districts which witnessed violence and rigging. The police were either incapable of handling the situation or just played the bystanders.
The deputy commissioners, who were acting as district returning officers, also failed to do justice to their task. And as the chief minister angrily pointed out to one of the deputy commissioners that his report on the conduct of the LB elections was a self-indictment and could result in registering a criminal case against him.
If there were lapses, if the staff was deficient and untrained and if the ballots fell short or were not delivered on time, or if the seals or symbols were missing, the district returning officers should have brought it to the ECP’s knowledge.
Instead, the district returning officer of one of the largest districts was found napping on polling day and it took several phone calls from the highest authority in the provincial administration to trace him and wake him up at 11am.
There were allegations of symbols having been sold for Rs10,000 apiece to sensitive constituencies’ candidates and copies of ballots made available for a price ranging from Rs25,000 to Rs60,000 and staff posted on requests. Evidently, though the district returning officers were technically under the ECP, they essentially remained deputy commissioners, vulnerable to pressures.
“The bottom line is that the elections were mismanaged,” acknowledges KP Chief Minister Pervez Khattak. “It all boils down to one thing, there was no preparation and no management,” he says. “There are lapses on the part of the ECP but then there have been lapses on the part of the district returning officers, who were deputy commissioners and the police. We are looking into it and will take action.”
The CM alleges that the vandalism and violence were engineered by the opposition parties, mainly the ANP. “It was pre-planned,” he insists.
But the elections that were to herald empowerment of the people and bring about a revolution at the grass roots, through a meticulously crafted law, turned into embarrassment. It did tarnish the PTI’s image which, though initially went into its usual blame-game mode, recovered immediately by offering a re-poll under the judiciary or the military.
Instead of accepting the offer, the opposition went overboard, accusing the government of having lost the moral authority to rule and demanding it step down, echoing the PTI’s own demand made from atop the Islamabad container that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif resign.
“The PTI is chewing a chewed gum,” says ANP leader Mian Iftikhar Hussain. “These are stereotype statements,” he says. “There is nothing new in the offer.”
So what is it that prompted the opposition to take such a hard-line position? Opposition parties say PTI’s tactic of bullying its way through the LB elections reflected a certain mindset.
“The PTI is gradually becoming a fascist party and we are worried that if we don’t apply brakes to its dictatorial policies now, the survival of other political parties would be at stake,” says Mr Hussain.
“Had we not applied pressure, I don’t think the PTI would have offered fresh polls,” he argues. “But the question is: do we trust them? No, we don’t.”
Apparently, either the opposition parties read too much into the outcome of the LB elections to make a pitch for the resignation of Pervez Khattak’s government, or they are simply playing the same old political game of spoiling the ruling coalition’s remaining term in power.
But if the outcome of Wednesday’s shutter-down call is anything to go by, the people of KP, affected and devastated by over a decade of terrorism and bloodshed and weary of agitational politics, are not in a mood to heed such calls, not at least now.
Analysis: Who’s responsible for ‘mismanaged’ polls? | Ismail Khan.
Published in Dawn, June 12th, 2015