A “Peaceful” Poll in Pakistan

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In this video shot by local Pakistani activists, bazaaris were taking what appeared to be purloined ballot boxes to the market the day before the polls after strongman Pervez Musharraf solemnly pledged the sanctity of the vote.

Confidence in one’s ability to stay alive ebbs dramatically when the first thing you see on polling day in Pakistan is a foreign election observer being fitted with a bulletproof vest. Particularly if you are also here as an official observer, and don’t have one. And you are observing the poll in Pakistan’s ‘Osama Belt’ around the Pashtun capital of Peshawar, often described as the world’s most dangerous place.

The observer was taking no chances. A suicide bomber had killed 47 at a party office nearby a day earlier. Ultimately, the elections were declared “free and fair” by most observers despite the fact that at least 10 people were reported killed around the country and 70 injured — a peaceful poll by Pakistani standards. But as polling day panned out, the observer would have looked awkward and even stupid walking into the polling booths of the wild region near the Khyber Pass to Afghanistan.

Notorious for its vengeful blood feuds, Peshawar voted peacefully on Monday if — with turnout barely more than 30 percent — somewhat unenthusiastically. What the voters did do was hand President Pervez Musharraf his hat in what appeared to be a striking rejection of his — and the US’s — policies in favor of parties of the now-dead Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister that Musharraf ousted in 1999.

But at least in Peshawar, the knock-off AK-47s every household seems to own were left on the gun racks. As official observers bravely fanned out across the North West Frontier Province, we were in more danger of drowning in cups of sweet tea proffered with overwhelming Pashtunwali hospitality than being taken out by a terrorist.

Invited by a Pakistani civil society group, the Centre for Media and Democracy, ours was an eclectic observer group; an Indian journalist, liberal Serb political activists, a Belgian ex-MP, Canadian civil society activists, a handful of Dutch peaceniks and women’s rights campaigners. Several had observed elections in Africa and Eastern Europe’s new democracies. The Australian High Commission said I was the only Australian observer in the country, odd given new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s outward-looking government.

The CMD found us through international contacts, and Google. This was the center’s first election mission and it was making it up as it went along. Convenor Ayub Munir explained that the CMD was formed because “we are sick of living in a country that’s not normal. We want a safe, secular democracy just like anyone else.”

They seemed well-meaning but their organization often bumbled and, because this is Pakistan, there are always intrigues. Just as invitees were jelling in Islamabad, an American appeared unannounced on the scene as “group leader.” Short, fat, bald and given to un-ironic remarks like “listen, I’m from New Hampshire, we invented democracy,” Thomas Houlahan presented himself as almost a parody of the obnoxious American abroad. He’d show up at group meetings dressed in college sweats with his gut hanging out while loudly pronouncing on the Pakistani constitution.

“Ya know Fox, CNN, the networks….I’m their go-to guy on Pakistan, there’s nothing I don’t know about what happens here.” Describing himself as a ‘distinguished constitutional scholar,’ he claimed to represent a Washington think-tank, the Center for Science and Security. That he was also ex-US military deeply concerned about the Dutch delegates, representing a peace group. He liked to name-drop, notably General Rashid Qureshi, Musharraf’s senior aide and a man much hated by Pakistanis. When we made a courtesy call on the president, Houlahan took with him his copy of Musharraf’s autobiography while nodding sagely at the strongman’s every remark. I told my colleagues of suspicions I’d picked up from diplomats that CMD was close to Mohammed Ali Durrani, a former information minister and a tight palace ally.

Two days out from the poll, we ousted a very agitated Houlahan in a coup. Munir apologized to the rest of us, claiming he had no idea what this guy was like. Then we tore up the CMD observer procedures and made our own, following EU guidelines. The group would have no official leader. But that didn’t stop Houlahan from spouting his pro-government line to the local press as our ‘leader.’ The rest of us were compelled to make our own media statements stressing our strict neutrality, dissociating ourselves from him and from CMD’s affiliations. Then we headed to the provinces to observe voting.

With local guides, my Serb colleague Milan Tavcar and I visited about 20 polling stations at random around Peshawar and nearby rural villages. And, although the government appeared to be dedicated to either discouraging the vote outright or, as the opposition saw it, seeking to make sure its team won, the voters ended up crushing Musharraf’s Pakistan Muslim League-Q, which only managed to hold just 35 seats in the 272-seat house.

The polling stations were eclectic. Some were in schools. There were booths in Peshawar’s Customs House. Another was in the “Story-Teller’s Bazaar” on the first floor landing of a ramshackle building. Its very location denied access for the old and disabled, as did another with its long trek across paddy fields. There were separate stations for women. I didn’t see one vote cast by a woman all day, and only four completed ballot papers in a box at a female station.

Though voting procedures were generally followed — ballot box seals were unbroken and party scrutineers monitored every move – sometimes it seemed as if the election commission had gone out of its way to de-emphasize the poll it hosted. Few stations had signs indicating what was happening inside. Hung with campaign bunting, some looked more like offices for the contesting parties. Sometimes, commission officials wore party badges. In some stations, the ink that was smudged over thumbs that proved a vote had been cast could be rubbed off. Another trick was to smear thumbs with oil so the ink wouldn’t stain. Sometimes voter lists didn’t have corresponding IDs. A candidate showed us a sheaf of phony ballot papers.

On the day before the poll, we saw a mobile phone video of two men walking along Peshawar’s main street near the commission’s regional office carrying purloined ballot boxes and heading toward the bazaar. President Musharraf had only two days earlier in our meeting solemnly guaranteed the sanctity of the ballot box and the voter lists.

We had our EU questionnaire to note voting procedure but it wasn’t sufficient. We fashioned our own ‘incident report’ noting any complaints or irregularities. By the end of the day, we had run out of those.

In the village of Pushta Khana Payan, veiled ladies complained of waking up on polling day to find ‘night letters,’ an ancient practice here where intimidating notes are passed under the door overnight. They had warned them against voting, even though the election commission had specifically urged NWFP women to vote. But the village men wouldn’t let them, and proudly told us so. We filled out yet another incident report.

We chose Polling Station 112 in Peshawar’s old town to watch the counting. There were 1957 voters registered and the presiding officer said just 621 votes were cast. As polls closed, ballot box seals were broken in front of party workers, the votes strewn on the filthy floor for sorting. Seven burly policemen guarded outside, as party worker noses pressed up to windows craning to see the results. There were two polls on Monday, green ballots cast for provincial assemblies and white for federal but there were white papers in green boxes and vice versa.

Though good-humored, the hubbub was deafening as party agents tussled over the ballots. Armed with riot sticks, the police were bellowing “Hamoosh!” – ‘Silence” in Pashto – to keep the peace and let counting continue. After 90 minutes and two recounts, it was clear that the late Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party had walked off with this station.

Was the overall election free and fair? No Pakistani election has ever been. This poll was marked by intimidation, fear and deep-seated voter cynicism, heightened in NWFP by the absence of half the electorate, its women. Was it better than others? Marginally, but the bar is set very low in this country. Did it get the result that Pakistanis wanted? So far it seems to have, though with the inevitable horse-trading to come, and Pakistani politicians’ fondness for making and breaking deals, it’s highly likely we’ll all be back here again inside a year, albeit with Musharraf gone, to an American exile perhaps.

As my fellow Serb observer noted, no stranger he to stolen elections and distracted by the breakup of his own country, polling day is always transparent, of the least concern in the election process because if the vote is to be stolen, it will have already happened. “We don’t know who’s drinking, and who’s paying the bill,” he said.

Eric Ellis is a foreign correspondent based in Southeast Asia and has reported extensively fromPakistan.