American observer doesn’t take rigging charges seriously

February 18th, 2008 - 10:01 pm ICT by admin  

A file-photo of Nawaz Sharif
By Devirupa Mitra
Islamabad, Feb 18 (IANS) The head of an election observer group, contracted by the US government to monitor Pakistan’s general elections Monday, said that while it was easy to cry foul in elections, there had to be more specific allegations for it to be taken seriously. “The people who are fearful of rigging are those who want to leave space (if they lose),” former US congressman Jim Moody told IANS.

“Anyone can cry rigging, but they need to be specific”.

Before polls opened, both the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) leader Nawaz Sharif and slain Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) leader Benazir Bhutto’s husband Asif Zardari had warned that there would be “war” if the results were in favour of the ruling party PML-Quaid.

The Election Commission of Pakistan has registered 10,000 observers to monitor the 10th general elections, including over 1,000 from abroad, chiefly from the European Union and the US.

Besides, three influential American lawmakers, Joseph Biden of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, former Democrat presidential candidate John Kerry and Republican Chuck Hagel, also visited polling stations to check the polling process and report back to the US Congress and Administration.

Incidentally, several prominent American NGOs had turned down the request of the Bush administration to monitor the elections, ostensibly over security fears. Finally, according to a recent US media report, Democracy International (DI) Inc agreed to do the job and signed a contract with the USAID on Feb 8.

DI representatives arrived in Pakistan just three days ago, after International Republican Institute (IRI) withdrew over safety concerns. The late arrival had been criticised by several civil rights group.

“This is not true. We had a team in Pakistan much before IRI. They also handed over much of their work and documents to us. We did not just parachute down here,” Moody said.

The role of DI is critical as their report on the credibility of the elections will be an important input in determining the future of the Bush administration’s support to the Pervez Musharraf regime.

The “war room” for DI was a conference suite in the well-guarded Marriott hotel in Islamabad, where maps of Pakistan were spread out over the low coffee tables with blue points to note the location of the various teams.

The European Union election team, consisting of 160 experts and diplomats, had set up their base at the Serena Hotel.

Moody’s DI delegation consists of 40 American observers, who broke up into teams of two and fanned across the country.

Besides, they have also called on the manpower capacity and experience of Free and Fair Election Network (Fafen), an umbrella group of Pakistani NGOs, that has deployed 20,000 observers across the country to cover the maximum number of 64,000 polling stations across the nation.

While security precautions were a major worry, he felt it had not impeded their movement. “In cities like Islamabad, we only have a single unarmed security personnel travelling with us. But, in other parts of Pakistan, we have a second security car shadowing the team vehicle,” he said.

He “opened” the polls at the F4 federal government secondary school number 1 in the Pakistani capital at 8 a.m., and stayed on for 40 minutes each in each of the four polling stations he visited in the morning.

“We checked that the ballots were sealed. We also monitored the voters list, the monitoring of the police and the role of the political parties,” he said.

Speaking to IANS after his four-hour monitoring trip through the city, Moody said the process had been “very quiet”.

The route and the places to be visited were kept confidential and decided just before the left.

“We did not even tell our drivers where we planned to go to avoid leaking of information. We just told him the place. After completing our monitoring there, we again decided where to go next. There was no coordination or intimation with local authorities,” said a member of the US delegation.

Moody said he was aware of complaints of missing voters and duplicate names on the electoral rolls, but in his four hours of observation “nobody had been turned away”.

He felt there was a very small scope of rigging after the votes had been cast in the current electoral system. “Our observers have access to the counting done by the presiding officers, so they can tally the results with those announced by the returning officer,” he said.

This was a better system, said the former US lawmaker, than relying on exit polls that are banned in Pakistan, as “there is a larger sample base”.

At the same time, the presence of observers, who have noted the results at the level of presiding officer, acts as a deterrent presence - “It is very dangerous to do anything for fear of exposure”.

“There has never been a perfect election. Even in the US, it is not perfect,” said Moody, adding that the results should be “tolerable within the range”.

Meanwhile, Fafen reported that about 1,000 observers of its 20,000-strong group were not given accreditation in time for the elections. It also reported that several of its observers were turned away from over 500 polling stations. Then polling agents of candidates were turned away from 171 polling stations.

There were also reports that Nazims or local government officials remained inside 477 polling stations. Though the army had been barred near polling stations, they were observed by Fafen in at least 1,388 polling stations.

While Fafen will provide their final report Tuesday, both the US-based election observer group and the European Union election monitoring delegation will release their reports on the Pakistan elections separately Wednesday.

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