Polling from the other side



Fouzia Nasir Ahmad/Yusra Salim


February 25, 2024


To be honest, I wasn’t going to cast my vote this time, although I am so glad that I did. There was too much uncertainty, noise, clutter and confusion surrounding elections 2024, [little did we know that plenty more drama was to follow afterwards], with the same old faces, too many unknown faces and some faces entirely missing.

As polling day neared, with the guilt of zero intention to perform my national duty slowly piling up, I ended up asking four close friends what was their plan. Three out of four felt that one must exercise one’s right to vote, irrespective of what might be the end result.

You should do your bit,” “if someone is going to destroy your vote, then at least make his life difficult,” “please vote, you never know what might happen!” Somewhat motivated by three responses, I chose to ignore the fourth one and proceeded to dig out my required data by sending my CNIC number to 8300. I promptly received my constituency and other details which to my surprise turned out to be correct.

Since it was a public holiday on February 8, there were no school vans honking, no cars being pulled out from the parking lot early in the morning, and it seemed everybody was sleeping in. At precisely 8.00 am, when the alarm rang. I slept through. It’s a national habit, we have slept for decades, metaphorically speaking.

Despite being advised repeatedly by a co-worker to get it done over with nice and early, I got up with a start at 9.30 am, got ready and rushed out to arrive at my polling station in about an hour. The roads were empty so I could speed. Aah, so the rest of the world was still sleeping.

I was wrong. As I alighted from my car, I saw people walking in and out of the bungalow school in Clifton where my polling station was located. So here they all were, exercising their right to give their mandate! I must admit I was pretty impressed and amazed to see men and women of all kinds, young people in tracks and masks, the elderly in wheelchairs and a few plodding on with walking sticks.

Outside and inside, the faces looked familiar, might have seen them in supermarkets or cafes, while the environment had a mixed vibe of joy and determination — people shared the kind of feeling of when you return something to someone you owed to — lots of solemnness with a touch of excitement. I could see it in the eyes and the faces of the polling officials as well as the people queuing up to follow the voting procedure.

I stood in a queue inside the women’s voting room. It was a classroom with soft boards covered with colourful illustrations and meaningful quotes related to the students’ work and the lessons that they were being taught in school.

On one wall, a hand painted poster about Rashid Minhas caught my eye”

Parwaaz hai dono ki issi ek fiza mein

Momin ka nishan aur, munafiq ka nishan aur

Integrity, honour, noble, nation …, why did these words appear larger than others to me, I wondered. On another wall was the Quranic verse 2.42: “And do not mix the truth with falsehood or conceal the truth while you know it.”

As someone nudged me to move along with the queue as I was lost in thought, it suddenly, hit me that so many paradoxes were presented here, at the same time. A school, so pure, where values and virtues are imparted to children. So many schools are chosen to function as polling stations for general elections which instantly bring to the Pakistani mind words such as rigging, force, brutality, cheating, deceit, power, threat, and danger. I shuddered, and made a conscious effort to focus in the moment. The reason for this sleepy, philosophic brain cloud was that I rushed out without my morning dose of caffeine.

“Mujhay raasta do, hato, meine Quaid-e-Azam ko do martaba salute kiya hai [let me walk through, I have saluted Quaid-e-Azam twice],” said an elderly woman, dressed in baby pink and white, walking slowly but surely until she stopped in the centre of the smallish room. “Mujhe vote dalna hai, jaldi karo, khuda ki qasam meine do martaba salute kiya hai Jinnah sahib ko [I must cast my vote, I swear I have saluted Jinnah twice].” Resting against a desk, she lifted her tripod walking stick and waved it at the women in the queue. “Mujhay pehle dalnay do [let me vote before you].”

Not only the polling officials, but the voters too, quickly stood aside and made room for her as she fumbled with her CNIC and a little piece of paper with her information on it.

She quickly got to the end of the queue where she was presented with two bigger than A3-sized ballot papers with some two dozen symbols on them. She dropped the stamp as her hands had tremors. I picked it up for her. “Nusrat Ali ko bulado [get Nusrat Ali],” she said to me. “Mera beta hai [he is my son],” she said to me, as though she was quite used to ordering me around.

I told one of the officials present what she wanted and the elderly lady was permitted the assistance of her son to stamp the ballot paper.

Finally, my turn came at receiving the ballot paper. The polling officer seated on a smallish chair at a primary school desk struggled with folding the papers, signatures, pen, stamp, her dupatta, hijab and glasses. “Long day ahead for you, isn’t it? Ap ko chai ki zaroorat hai,” I said to her with a polite smile.

“Hum log ek haftay se busy hain, duaon mein yaad rakhein ke hum khairyat se kaam karke ghar chalay jayen [we have been busy for a week now, remember us in prayers that we complete this work and reach home safe and sound],” she said, finally finding a balance between her hijab, dupatta and glasses and handing me the ballot papers. “Inshallah,” I smiled and moved into the half-concealed space to cast my vote.

The deed done, with a great feeling of having returned a big loan back, I found my way out through bigger queues and some people adamantly begging polling agents to come downstairs with books and ballot papers so that the elderly voters accompanying them, patiently waiting in their wheelchairs could cast their votes.

The human side of polls

General elections in any country, and especially in ours involves a lot of energy, let alone truckloads of money. From organising, and execution to the inevitable rigging and the formation of the new government, it is a time-consuming, expensive and an arduous process.

Then there is the human side but we will not discuss the candidates and politicians because they already bag a lot of print space, air time and bytes. But the involvement, work and experiences of election officers, presiding officers, returning officers, election duty officers, and security officers must be acknowledged and commended.

As per election ruling, schools and dispensaries are transformed into polling stations and mostly government employees from the health and education are assigned duties as election officers. Grade 14 government employees are used as polling agents and higher grades as assistant presiding or presiding officers. This humongous crew manages the countrywide production of this gigantic venture so that the public can smoothly vote and give their mandate.

Waqar Salim* who works in the Punjab Education Department as a teacher in grade 16, worked as assistant presiding officer in the recent elections.

“Preceding the polling day, we had a two-day training, which is a lecture, so as to be able to perform our tasks and duties,” shared Salim. “The training is held at tehsil level at the designated centre known as cluster which caters to a number of polling stations. Even though they feed us well, sometimes it is easily a 20 or 30-mile commute away from home. Once you have been assigned for duty, you have to do it, but despite praying that a cancellation happens, there is no way out of that. The only positive is that they feed you well after the training lecture.”

Salim has previous experience of this duty, knows the whole rigmarole and was reluctant to do it this time. “Although it is important national work,” he says. “There is reluctance to do it because it is high pressure, risky, underpaid, inconvenient, uncomfortable and exhausting.”

Polling officers just have to be present on the polling day itself to verify the vote. Women are also given relaxation and allowed to depart earlier. It is the assistant presiding and presiding officers who are assigned a more responsible task. “It is their responsibility to bring the equipment from the centre and sleep over at the polling station the night before election day, which you have to conduct the entire day following by counting that goes on till late at night,” he shares. “It doesn’t end there, we have to return the equipment to the centre, as we are accountable for each and everything from ink bottles and pens to rulers and ballot paper pads. It takes hours to get everything received by them and give us a clearance. So collectively we spent two nights at the polling station and return home at 9am, not wishing this on our enemies.”

Salim pointed out that because of the exceptionally massive turnout this time and the symbols being changed, voters would arrive clueless about symbols of their candidates and had to be facilitated. “Even in the presence of the police some polling agents were badly behaved, rude and abusive, when we were filling out form 45 for our polling agents during the counting process,” he shared. “We had to tolerate their abusive behaviour because there was little, we could do about it after an exhausting day. There are a few moments of joy, tremendous pressure, and the Rs 6000 we get paid gets spent in fuel etc.”

Wondering why we still live in the stone age, Salim suggests that introducing electronic voting machines would take care of election related issues.

The duties assigned are not optional, but mandatory. “For this mandatory duty, training is held two weeks ahead of elections,” says Yasra Ashir, who was assigned election duty at a school in Karachi. “The training was thorough and I had to follow a fairly simple procedure at the polling booth which was located right next to a Rangers’ office so security was not an issue for us.”

Initially, Ashir was reluctant about her election duty as she had had heard that the election staff is often threatened and mistreated by political parties after polling ends, but she found her experience and exposure as an assistant presiding officer was hands on.

“I got paid Rs 4500 and food was also arranged for us,” she shares.

Other presiding officers, however, felt that the previous elections were conducted better than this year.

“There was a lot of mismanagement at every level,” says Aamir Ali* who was also appointed as a presiding officer. “For example, the staff list was not confirmed till the last minute and nobody knew where and what duty they were assigned.”

Ali who has previously worked in elections also complained that the two-day training was superficial. “It was not even close to what we experienced on polling day and the procedures taught in training sessions were different in reality,” he says.

According to Ali, the payment varied for different positions and locations. “Some presiding officers were paid Rs8000 but I was paid Rs6000,” he shares.

Previously, Ali said that the duties would be assigned near people’s homes but this year most of the staff deployed was from distant areas which made understanding constituencies and areas quite difficult.

This was the fourth time Rehana Asim, a biology teacher, worked as a presiding officer in a school. While the training, her work and the timely emolument of Rs 8000 were a breeze, she and her family were anxious about the school being located in a high-alert area in Landhi, Karachi.

“We kept asking the security people to keep telling us what is happening outside,” she says. “Mobile phones not working added to the misery where no one from the family could contact us about our well-being.”

Asim, like Ali felt that the training was just a formality. “I knew stuff from experience and had to help the new appointees who were inexperienced and confused as the training didn’t provide them with much knowledge or skills,” she says.

“Voters need to have an awareness and training too, perhaps through public service messages on mainstream and social media,” she believes. “Ninety percent of the voters did not know how to vote nor did they know the difference between a national and provincial seat. Half the time they end up wasting their vote.”

But that will happen when the elected government fulfills its responsibility and bring their manifestos to life, so that education becomes top priority for our government in which case the voters will have a better understanding of national and provincial seats and how important their vote is.

*Names changed to protect identity

#Polling #side

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