Will the Gilgit-Baltistan elections turn violent? – Part 1

This is the first article in a two part series.

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Will Gilgit-Baltistan’s (G-B) general election on November 15, 2020 turn violent? An assessment is provided here to answer that question by deploying an array of electoral assessment frameworks developed by international organisations dedicated to the theory and practice of elections worldwide. Applying illegal force to influence the outcome of an election by contestants and saboteurs is a common feature of developing democracies which generally operate in an environment of divisive politics and institutional weaknesses. In fact, evidence shows that incidence of electoral violence is closely related to the level of democracy in a country.

A country with a high score on democracy indices is likely to be less violent than one with a lower democracy score as measured by organisations like Freedom House and V-Dem. There are at least four democracy measuring organisations in the world, all of which place Pakistan on the lower end of the scale and one of which has downgraded Pakistan to a hybrid democracy. This assessment relies on the limited primary and secondary qualitative data harvested from G-B’s past elections, election laws, and political data available from public sources.

It is stated at the outset that this assessment found no serious threat of Level III violence – the extreme violence coded for 20 or more deaths. However, some Level I and Level II violence is predicted including street brawls, rally crashing, and prevention of women from voting – which is a serious violation of democratic rights of women and thus comes under the definition of electoral violence. Electoral violence is defined by International Federation for Electoral Systems, IFES, as, ‘any harm or threat of harm that is aimed at hindering or disrupting any part of the electoral process or political process in and around the election period’. Jeff Fischer a leading scholar on electoral security and integrity and my professor at Georgetown defines it thus, ‘any random or organised act or threat to intimidate, physically harm, blackmail or abuse an electoral stakeholder in seeking to determine, delay or to otherwise influence the electoral process.’ The conflict can be spontaneous or premeditated.

Understanding the complexity surrounding an election is astoundingly difficult given the sheer number of moving parts and quickly shifting variables that come to bear on the process and the result of an election. Yet given the centrality of the process to democratic governance and sensitivity surrounding elections some systematic study – however flawed – is instructive for mitigating violence during elections. Election management officials, general administration officials, and the media can better manage an election if the drivers of electoral conflict are understood well and devise contingency plans to manage violence.

An abundance of research on electoral violence has revealed that two kinds of factors drive electoral violence; endogenous or process factors and exogenous or structural factors. Endogenous factors stem from the process of election itself, while exogenous factors are the objective and structural realities rooted in the socio-economic profile of the state.

I – Endogenous factors

As the electoral violence assessment tools and frameworks show, the elements required to successfully and legally hold an election, sometimes, themselves become windows and triggers for violence. The election law i.e. Election Act 2017, the election management body i.e. Election Commissioner G-B, key actors and stakeholders like political parties, and independent candidates, as well as different phases of an election all can potentially fuel electoral chaos. The election commission’s handling of the election, lack of mechanisms to resolve electoral disputes, training of the election officials, agents and members of the commission, poor voter information and education, voter registration issues, election day procedural blunders, technology breakdowns like RTS breaking down etc. etc. are a few but common examples of the endogenous factors that strongly affect the process of the election.

The election law

Like the rest of the country, G-B’s elections are being held under the Elections Act, 2017, which has replaced the Gilgit-Baltistan (Self-empowerment and Governance) Order 2009 mandated law. The election law is not disputed by any of the stakeholders which bodes well for the peaceful conduct of elections. No known protests or objections by the key political leaders, political parties, civil society, media and the general public against the law have been reported after the national law was recently extended to the region by the Supreme Court on the request of the Federal government. Curiously, the new governance order which replaced the Order of 2009 has just one clause related to the election saying that there would be an election commissioner for G-B.

However, large-scale violations of the law are widespread during campaign rallies. Under Section 175 (g) of the Elections Act 2017, promising development projects after the issuance of election schedule are barred, and yet announcements with potential to alter with alter the level playing field guaranteed by the law. Federal Minister for the region Ali Amin Gandapur has been doing just that for weeks, including making the bizarre comment offering four billion rupees if his party’s candidate wins. It comes on the heels of a huge announcement by the prime minister in which he pledged upgradation of G-B to the status of a province upending the electoral balance.

The election management body: Chief election commissioner

The election management body of G-B is called the office of the Chief Election Commissioner. Its current commissioner is a retired judge of G-B’s Chief Court and has assumed the office only a few months back. The administrative and resource capacity of the Office is, by all accounts, quite limited. Until recently, around the time the incumbent government’s term was about to expire the electoral rolls were not updated – an issue the Commission alleged was due to the government’s failure to provide funds. That also brings to fore an important requirement according to the Assessment framework employed to undertake this assessment makes it clear that financial and administrative autonomy of the election management body is of pivotal importance not just for electoral violence but the integrity of the whole election enterprise. The Federal government would be well advised to take measures to ensure its autonomy on par with the national Election Commission of Pakistan and the four Provincial Election Commissions.

G-B’s election commission also suffers from lack of permanent staff to conduct the elections, and employees of the government from other departments are temporarily hired to man the polling stations and run the process. No rigorous training is provided, and a mere briefing style seminar precedes the elections. G-B’s election commission has been absent on the voter awareness and education front too. Local TV stations, newspapers, Radio were devoid of any significant campaign by the commission. The same tardiness was visible during the voter registration period with no data available to see what percent of the total voting age population has registered to vote. Same day registration doesn’t exist either.

Another issues that mars the Commission is inefficiency of the election dispute resolution mechanisms. The Electoral Assessment Framework recommends swift disposal of election disputes not just to diminish the avenues for violence but also to ensure unblemished elections.

Code of conduct

Another endogenous electoral factor in G-B is the Code of Conduct issued by G-B Election Commissioner. The Code is fairly detailed covering all aspects and stakeholders involved in the process, and it has been issued after consultations of political parties and are beholden to it. Code of Conduct details the problematic conduct by political parties and are bound to follow.

The key actors that are required to follow the Code are political parties whose campaign activities can potentially turn violent through provocation and confrontational canvassing and rallying, voter intimidation or taking over the polling booths.

Severe violations of both the Elections Act 2017 and the Code of Conduct have been committed by all the contesting political parties in this campaign phase. Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, PPP’s co-chairman has camped out in G-B for weeks now and has increased seats for G-B’s students in Sindh’s institutions of higher education. – a demand made by G-B’s successive governments and students. And the evidence from ground suggests he has been able to stem the steady lead of other parties. As discussed earlier Federal Minister has been canvassing on behalf of his party’s candidates and promised development funds and establishment of new administrative districts in Ghizer in return for electing his party’s candidates. Maryam Nawaz Sharif has been touring G-B too, where she unexpectedly drawn huge crowds.

This is a violation of Section 18 of the Code prohibits this: “The President, Prime Minister, Chairman/Deputy Chairman Senate, Speaker/Deputy Speaker of an Assembly, Federal Ministers, Ministers of State, Governors, Chief Ministers, Provincial Ministers, Advisors to the Prime Minister and the Chief Ministers, Mayors/Chairman/Nazim, their deputies and other public office holders shall not participate in election campaign in any manner whatsoever. This provision will be applicable to the Caretaker setup.” Across G-B dozens of show-cause notices have been issued by Returning Officers to contesting candidates for violations of the Code, but no strict action like disqualification has been made. The region’s High Court named Chief Court has finally issued orders to both Mr. Bilawal Bhutto and Mr. Gandapur to leave G-B within three days.

Voter registration and nomination phase

The voter registration phase has amicably passed and without any reports of serious irregularities, and the nomination phase where the candidates’ applications were vetted against the law has also passed without contestants and observers crying foul. This is a good sign on the health of the process. It remains to be seen if distribution of voting materials, and establishment of polling station, opportunity of violence to steal ballots, election paraphernalia can receive setbacks.

All the assessment methods and electoral violence assessment frameworks developed by such organisations as IDEA, IFES, the EU, USAID and the US State Department considers these faces with windows providing ‘conflict entrepreneurs’ to sow conflict. The triggers in these contexts could be denying registration of votes to areas thought to belong a certain party and disqualification of candidates at the nomination phases, both of these are examples are of window sand triggers that have been known to result in electoral violence in many countries around the world. Policy makers, and executive authorities as well as higher level officials of G-B’s Election Commissioner’s Office need to be alert to and mitigate such spiral by anticipating the possible actions beforehand.

Election campaign phase

Another window for possible violence is the long phase of election campaign phase. Campaign rallies especially in societies with deep cleavages and low levels of democracy can quickly descend into chaos. Possible triggers have been identified as routes of campaign rallies and the proximity of venues of bitter contestants. If the sitting government or the election commission doesn’t command the confidence of the contestants as a neutral referee, and rally permits are issued arbitrarily, the perception will sow discord in the electoral process.

The government is well advised devise a transparent policy regarding permits for holding rallies in public venues by engaging the contestant. If there are only a few venues the authorities should give a schedule to each party with days spread out enough between them to avoid conflict. If the rallies are in the form of motorcades as is often the case in G-B, the government should make route plans to make sure that they don’t intersect each other and are at safe distances to avoid confrontation as the voters are particularly charged during the rallies.

Another trigger for violence in this phase is disrupting and a rally that is underway either by the police or an opposing party’s supporters. Restrictions on public events or police action to prevent campaigning is another trigger that has been witnessed in countries with partisan government authorities.

Election day triggers

The triggers of violence on the Election Day are also very well understood. There is enough evidence and data to support the view that tedious electoral procedures and slow-moving lines fuel perceptions of fraud. The hoaxes and rumors of fraud happening quickly unravel the process, this happens in particularly close contest and the losing partying sensing a defeat attempt to discredit the process by crying foul without an evidence in processes called Hail Mary steps.

The potential danger to a party’s leader and the assumed partisanship of presiding officers inside a polling station is also known to trigger violence. The actual existence of evidence doesn’t matter in this phase. Rumors or actual instances of physically preventing voters from going to polling stations by blocking transports or capturing transportation systems can quick move people towards violence. In countries with electronic voting, electoral machines break down can trigger violence, just as disappearance or dearth of ballot papers and other electoral paraphernalia that halts the process does.

Vote count phase triggers

Tabulating results at the Polling Stations by presiding officers and the result consolidation that happens at the level of Returning and District Returning Officer levels can potentially be a trigger too, especially if disagreement mars the counting process between the presiding officers and the election agents of candidates. Also, delay in announcement of results is known to trigger violence too. Again, this factor becomes more acute in the context of weak democracy one of its syndromes being a total lack of public trust in the institutions of government.

Another trigger that has resulted in conflict at this phase is the release of Election Observer reports. Having neutral observers is one of the standard practices of free and fair elections, and as such are more futuristic, therefore, the observers must be asked to wait until the dust to settle (until after the official release of results) down before releasing their findings, especially if they are damning to the process of elections.

Postal ballots

G-B has a widespread diaspora spread all over Pakistan, and a significant number of seasonal migrants who move to cities to escape the harsh winters of G-B who are allowed the use of postal ballots. But in a nation without so much maladministration such ballots are vulnerable to a number of mismanagement and abuse. Instances of fake ballots have been reported with around 1700 fake postal ballots in Astore constituency 1, and Gilgit constituency 2 where 6000 postal ballots. This not only casts doubt on the integrity of the elections but also can trigger violence. Political parties have criticised the failure of the election commission to ensure safeguards against it.

Official results announcement triggers

Official announcement of election results means no mission accomplished and is no guarantee of peaceful conclusion of the electoral process. Announcement of the results can especially trigger violence if the results goes against the expectations. They can also reinforce impression of illicit activity especially if it was suspected during the pre-election day phase.

The chances of violence are greater if the results are starkly different from those projected by opinion polls, exit polls, and media speculation. If the key political figures refuse to concede defeat with state authorities and security organisations then we have all the ingredients needed for the powder keg to light up.