February 6, 2024
ISLAMABAD – It will be curtains for all election campaigns tonight as a two-day moratorium on political activity goes into effect. The mandatory cool-down period before election day will begin as soon as the clock strikes midnight.
A senior official of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) shared with Dawn that the campaigning window will close at the stroke of midnight between February 6 and 7 under the country’s election laws. He warned that those violating the law may face imprisonment of up to two years.
Section 182 of the Elections Act 2017 reads, “No person shall convene, hold or attend any public meeting, or promote or join in any procession, within the area of a constituency or, in the case of the Senate election, a Province, during a period of forty-eight hours ending at midnight following [sic] the conclusion of the poll for any election in that constituency or Province”.
With the blackout period approaching, political parties and contesting candidates had intensified their election campaigns in recent days. The top leaders of various political parties had visited different constituencies to woo voters.
During their addresses, to rallies big and small, they recounted their achievements, shared their plans for the future, and made lofty promises in their attempts to swing more votes in their favour.
The ECP once again found itself defending its new Election Management System on Monday, which has become the subject of a growing controversy ever since a returning officer wrote to the ECP to formally express fears that “someone else” might be controlling it.
ECP Secretary Syed Asif Hussain ruled out any possibility of manipulation while assuring reporters that the EMS would work even if the internet failed, as returning officers would still be able to compile all results offline. He said more than 60 ROs in remote areas had also been provided with satellite connectivity to keep them connected.
Reporters also posed similar questions to the project director of the ECP’s Project Management Unit (PMU), Col Saad. When asked about the possibility of the EMS being hacked and the results being manipulated to favour a specific political party, Col Saad said the system had all the security features of an international standard application and would run on a secure private network which would be accessible only to specific individuals on a pre-approved white list.
Regarding the allegation that the system may be manipulated, he said he had spoken personally with the returning officer who suggested that somebody else might be controlling the system. “The problem faced by the RO has been resolved,” he said.
Col Saad further shared that 3,000 laptops had been made available for the EMS, and 3,600 software operators had been hired and trained to facilitate returning officers on election day.
The project director, in response to a question, said it was not possible to provide a specific time for how long it may take to compile all results. He hoped, however, that all legal deadlines would be met and results would be completed by 10am on the day after the elections. He further shared that the EMS had been tested five times at various levels, and minor glitches that were discovered had been addressed.
The ECP’s DG IT, Khizar Aziz, said that the EMS technology had been upgraded, and it had already been used in 40 elections. The National Operations Center, he pointed out, has been built in accordance with world standards, and several power backups have been created to keep it running during emergency situations.
He said the EMS’s backup servers were with Nadra, which has 24 years of experience and resources from the government.
Explaining how the process will work, Mr Aziz said the presiding officers in each polling station will send compiled results to their returning officer through the EMS. “If there is any issue in the delivery of results, the presiding officer will personally convey them to the returning officer,” he assured. “The EMS will immediately detect any changes in the results”, he added.
Adding to this, an additional DG of the Central Control Room, Haroon Shinwari, said a facility has been set up to monitor the elections. He said special measures had been taken to monitor the EMS, and complaints would be received on WhatsApp, email and dedicated phone lines.
Mr Shinwari said four control rooms have also been set up at the provincial level, while 32 regional monitoring control rooms will be overseeing the exercise. Additionally, 144 district monitoring teams will be at hand to address any grievances.
Separately, the ECP said it had completed the task of delivering 260 million ballot papers to district returning officers despite time constraints and weather-related challenges. Delivery of ballot papers has started to the respective returning officers, who have been tasked with preparing packets for delivery to the concerned presiding officers a day before polling.
In a statement, the ECP also termed various reports circulating on social media regarding the ‘results’ of postal ballots mailed by jail inmates as baseless and misleading.
The electoral watchdog clarified that returning officers open and count postal ballots in their respective constituencies in front of the candidates and their polling agents during the consolidation process. The ballot papers are later included in the final results. The ECP urged people not to pay any attention to such misleading news.
Helpline for media observers
Meanwhile, the caretaker government launched an online platform to facilitate and address media complaints during the Feb 8 elections.
Addressing the launch event, the caretaker information minister, Murtaza Solangi, said the application would be accessible through any browser and had been launched for the convenience of local and international journalists and media persons.
A large number of foreign journalists and observers have arrived in Pakistan to monitor and cover the election exercise. The application will help journalists lodge complaints related to coverage of election activities quickly and efficiently through their mobiles, laptops or other devices.
A Press Information Department official said that besides monitoring the application, it would also depute staff to address complaints from election observers. He said the app will function as a mediator between different departments and foreign or national journalists.
Complaints will be referred to concerned departments on priority, and the application will keep track of them until they are resolved, he assured.
Press Information Officer Tariq Mehmood said the application will eventually be made a permanent medium for resolving journalists’ complaints.
He also announced that an election cell will be set up in PID on Feb 7, a day before the general elections, which will work round the clock to facilitate journalists.