By Robin Wright
But the Bush administration’s efforts to help ensure the balloting is credible were undermined yesterday when the only U.S. observer group planning to monitor the election, the International Republican Institute, canceled its involvement over election-day security concerns. The IRI said the potential for suicide bombings and general acts of violence makes it impossible to monitor the vote or evaluate the outcome with credibility.
“We don’t believe the security environment is such that we could do the things we’d like to do, such as spending time in polling stations and going out among voters. We felt it was too much exposure,” said Thomas E. Garrett, the IRI election expert on Pakistan. “We might limit the number of polling stations we visited or the number of hours, but we decided we either have to do it the right way or not do it.”
The administration has in recent days appealed to Pakistan’s election commission to publish the results of each local polling station to prevent rigging. U.S. and Pakistani experts are concerned that the election could be manipulated or stolen when votes are aggregated at the district level, where there are no standard rules or provisions for observers. Each of Pakistan’s 272 districts — one for each elected member of parliament — is to tally results from 200 to 300 polling stations.
“Without knowing what the count was at the local level, there’s no way of knowing if the district number reflects the real vote,” a senior international election official in Islamabad said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of polling procedures. The district vote will be counted by judges, who are all on the government payroll and who adjudicate complaints in election procedures.
Since the campaign began, interference by local and intelligence officials has become the biggest pre-election problem and now affects roughly two-thirds of the 272 districts, U.S. and Pakistani officials say.
“There have been violations of election rules throughout the process,” said Muddassir Rizvi, national coordinator of the Free and Fair Election Network in Pakistan. “Some of them have implications for the results, such as the role of the mayors and the state resources used in favor of some candidates, that give them undue advantage.”
Pakistani intelligence officials have been particularly active. “One way is to go to an influential person who could sway a few thousand voters. Intelligence goes and says, ‘You vote for this person or we’ll pull out a case registered against you seven years ago.’ Others go to candidates and say, ‘We have dirt on you and will use it unless you withdraw your [nomination] papers,’ ” Rizvi said.
The Bush administration has already acknowledged that the voting procedures are flawed. “On a scale from terrible to great, it’ll be somewhere in the middle,” Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Richard A. Boucher told a congressional panel Tuesday. “We’ve come out of the state of emergency with some serious distortions left on the process of the elections, with some things that still need to be corrected.”
Foreign observers are widely considered key to winning an international stamp of approval, limiting vote rigging and preventing post-election violence. The State Department has encouraged members of key Senate and House committees to informally observe the election, and Sens. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), both former presidential candidates, and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) have agreed to witness the voting, their offices confirmed. Others may join.
But the international presence will be minimal — limited to about 100 observers from the European Union, a few foreign politicians, plus small teams pulled together from embassies in Islamabad, to monitor 80 million voters in 64,170 polling stations spread out in an area almost twice the size of California. There may be only slightly more than one observer per million voters.
In contrast, during the critical 2006 Palestinian elections, 900 international observers monitored 980,000 voters at just over 1,000 polling stations in an area the size of Delaware.
The Asia Foundation is funding the local Free and Fair Election Network, which will field about 20,000 local observers, the largest such operation to be undertaken in Pakistan. In defiance of an official ban on exit polling, the network is planning to do a “parallel vote” at 8,200 polling stations, but it may not be able to achieve the accuracy of a formal exit poll. “There is no way we can observe and report everything, as we have limited access,” Rizvi said.
But Pakistani observers are facing an array of problems just getting accredited because of the lack of uniform rules. Media and observers get credentials at the district level, Rizvi said, and many are interpreting the law differently.Top