Blatant vote-rigging in Pakistani elections stops one key left candidate being elected

Even before all the votes had been counted the leader of the Pakistan People’s Party, Benazir Bhutto accused the Pakistani regime of vote-rigging. However, this is not just a ritual claim of a bitter leader forced into exile by accusations of corruption. Even the EU observers have had to admit that, "Regrettably... the Pakistan authorities engaged in a course of action which resulted in serious flaws in the electoral process." This was particularly blatant in the case of Sialkot-5, one hundred kilometres north of Lahore. Here Ghulam Abbas was denied victory because of his role on the left of the PPP.

Even before all the votes had been counted the leader of the Pakistan People's Party, Benazir Bhutto accused the Pakistani regime of vote-rigging. However, this is not just a ritual claim of a bitter leader forced into exile by accusations of corruption.

Now the EU observers have issued their judgement: "The holding of a general election does not in itself guarantee the establishment of a democracy," the EU's chief election observer John Cushnahan told a news conference. "Regrettably... the Pakistan authorities engaged in a course of action which resulted in serious flaws in the electoral process."

Polling stations closed at five o'clock on Thursday afternoon. Polling had been mainly peaceful, with some notable exceptions. Religious leaders had prevented women from voting in some areas, but most people who wanted to have been able to go to the polling stations.

The balloting was more or less secret. But the state had not provided any polling booths for voters to fill in their ballot papers. Most often the voters had to mark their ballot papers behind a dirty sheet or in some cases a toilet, but quite often they had to make do with a table or windowsill in the same room as the election officials and the polling agents from all the different parties. In two of the many polling stations that I visited in Kasur they claimed the sheet had been stolen. How could that happen in a stuffy small room where the presiding officer, his assistant and five polling agents crowded in?

However, the main problems began after the polling stations had closed and the EU observers had gone home. Suspicions were first aroused when the first results to come in, at half past eight on a private television channel, came from the distant mountains in the North West Frontier where conditions are feudal or pre-feudal and communications are extremely slow. The other results were delayed because the authorities were busy "improving" the results.

In one polling station in Kasur where I observed the counting, turnout was relatively high. Despite that the counting of the votes for the National Assembly had finished by six o'clock. Turnout was generally lower in the towns than in the countryside. People in the towns were more skeptical about the election and less likely to do as they had been told to do by the local rulers. So it should have been faster to count the votes in the towns. The state Television channel didn't start announcing the first official results until just before midnight.

The events in one constituency (nr 5) in Sialkot, only one hundred kilometres north of Lahore, give an idea about what happened in many parts of the country between the closing of the polling stations and the announcements of the official results. Sialkot is an industrial town known for its child labour that supplies the world with footballs. The PPP candidate, Ghulam Abbas, is a popular veteran of the struggle against three dictatorships and a sympathizer of the Marxist journal Class Struggle. He has been jailed and tortured many times. He still suffers from a severe back injury due to torture. In 1993 he was elected to the Punjabi Provincial Assembly and appointed as Punjabi minister against corruption. This was because he was considered the only completely untainted candidate for the position. In this election he was a candidate for the National Assembly.

When we contacted him shortly after the polling stations had closed he said that the exit polls showed that he would get a majority of about 17000 votes. I was astonished when I saw the result on television at two thirty the following day. He had come last with 0 (nil) votes!

He told me that police and paramilitary forces had blocked the polling stations and taken the ballot boxes with them. None of his polling agents were allowed to either participate in the counting or sign the result lists.

The winner was Zahid Hamid, who belongs to a family of feudal landlords with important positions in the state administration. He is a relative of Irshad Hasan Khan, chief election commissioner of Pakistan. Hamid was the PML(Q) candidate and officially received 73,521 votes. There is no doubt that Hamid's supporters were prepared to use any available means to ensure his victory.

At eleven o'clock on Election Day Mithu, from Nanowali Village and one of Ghulam Abbas's young election agents, was murdered. At four o'clock Hamid's thugs struck again. Baba Kala, an old PPP activist and also one of Abbas's election agents, was tortured at a polling station and died of his injuries. Another young election agent, Khalid, was kidnapped together with his motorbike. Later his bike was found at a police station, but Khalid has still not reappeared. In total 27 people have been injured.

Akhter Ali Vario has been accused of organizing the rigging and the murders. He is a gangster who has absconded from arrest, but has appeared openly on PML(Q) platforms in Sialkot. During the night he was seen in the room where the final results were compiled.

However, even by Pakistani standards the absurdity of Abbas getting 0 votes was too big. Later his result was revised and suddenly they had found 64,800 votes for him. Even now Abbas has received the printed results from only 57 of the 305 polling stations in his constituency.

Most likely the rigging was not as brutal and blatant in most places. Rigging and corruption, if it is not confronted by a strong resistance, is normally more of a slippery slimy process that slithers along all kinds of paths.

Japan and the Commonwealth had each sent a handful of observers. They and the US, who only had their embassy personnel present in Pakistan, had no problems in immediately declaring the elections fair and free. Why then had the EU sent 88 observers who couldn't but help noticing some of the rigging? Pakistan is a country where the EU (unlike the USA, Japan and Britain) has little influence. Now they are trying to find a niche as the champions of democracy from which they then can extend their base into Pakistan. That also explains why, in spite of what their observers noted, their criticism of the election was relatively mild and their task ended as the polling stations closed. A complete condemnation of the election, which would have been fully justified, would have burnt too many bridges for the EU in Pakistan.

The PPP leadership has, after Benazir's initial protest, accepted the election result. Now they want "national reconciliation", i.e. the struggle has begun to get as close as possible to the fruits of power. They have absolutely no interest in organizing a struggle from below, which is the only way of achieving new and truly democratic elections.

I asked a representative for the World Bank who arrived in Pakistan on the same plane as me, why the regime bothered to organize elections when most people in Pakistan understood that they were a fraud. He told me that the elections were not for satisfying a domestic audience, but above all to satisfy the western governments. What he didn't say or understand was that the governments are fully aware of the rigging, but they want to present a democratic illusion to the workers in the west to justify their co-operation with the rotten ruling clique in exploiting Pakistan.

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