Pakistan Election 2018: ECP's over-reliance on software, failure to respond to early warnings led to delay in poll results
Officials in the ECP and others privy to developments revealed that reliance on a technical system developed last year was the major cause of the embarrassing delay in results for the Pakistan General Election 2018
Islamabad: The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has finally declared the official general election results for all the provincial and National Assembly seats — more than 36 hours after the scheduled announcement and amid much criticism and charges of vote-rigging. The elections were held in the nation on Wednesday.
According to Pakistan's Elections Act, 2017, the poll body is bound to finalise the results by 2 am the next day, which is eight hours after voting closes. No wonder then that the Opposition parties and independent candidates are crying foul.
Around noon on Friday, it became official that cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party or PTI had trumped but would fall short of majority and need to cobble up a coalition.
Background talk with officials in the ECP and others privy to developments revealed that reliance on a technical system developed last year was the major cause of the embarrassing delay in results.
The system in question
The ECP in collaboration with Pakistan's National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) had formed a Results Transmission System (RTS) for timely collation of tally from across the country’s national and provincial constituencies.
Through the online RTS, the result of 85,000 polling stations was to be sent to the ECP headquarters via Android and iPhone-based apps.
The presiding officers (PO) were trained by NADRA to use the app to enter the results and take a picture of Form 45 that carries the final count of the number of votes each candidate received and other details.
The picture of the results was then to be transferred to the ECP server in real time for quick compilation.
What went wrong?
According to the ECP officials, the POs could not on many occasions upload the result properly because of technical issues, including Wi-Fi and 3G glitches. "They had a problem getting the signal but security officials inside polling stations did not allow them to leave (the premises) until the final result was sent to the ECP," said M Khizer Aziz, Director General for Information Technology, ECP.
He pointed out that stepping outside for a clearer signal could have helped transmit the result on time.
He also said that things were smooth initially, and the ECP had started receiving the tallies from POs half an hour after voting closed, but the RTS went down around midnight when the results started pouring in large numbers.
"We were taken by surprise and took some time to realise that the RTS was choked due to severe overload," he told 101Reporters.
When asked if the ECP had suspected such a collapse beforehand, Aziz refused to answer clearly and passed the buck onto NADRA. "They prepared the system and it is their thing which let us down,” he insisted.
Case of returning officers’ letters
Further probe threw up a vital fact — the ECP had looked the other way when three days before the elections, the returning officers (RO) of many polling stations had written to the commission complaining about the RTS.
ROs are the officers appointed by the poll body to collect the results from POs (of each polling station in each constituency) and share them with the ECP.
In one of the letters, published in detail in Pakistan daily The Express Tribune on polling day, a returning officer had clearly stated that the RTS might fail and there should be an alternative to it lest it would create trouble on election night and delay the results.
"This is to bring to your notice that the RTS system introduced by NADRA is not working properly. The registration process (of presiding officers) was started on 18 July, and there were so many anomalies in the system and it could not work," the returning officer reportedly said in the letter. "I have the apprehension that in such circumstances your RTS system will not perform on the poll day,” the officer added.
A senior official in the ECP said there were several such letters and the poll body did not respond to them thinking that it was a matter of a few isolated cases and not a general or major glitch.
What was the alternate?
In case of RTS failure, there was an alternative Result Management System (RMS), ECP’s Aziz said. In this, each returning officer was appointed a manual computer system at the office, where the POs had to come and share the result which would then be updated to the ECP.
However, this too did not work out, resulting in delay of more than 36 hours after the end of voting. The practice of sending Form 45 through fax was also not initiated until 10 precious hours had passed — when the POs finally realised there was no other way to send the result to the ECP.
It took Nadra and the ECP more than a year to develop the RTS for timely declaration of results but over-reliance on the software without having Plan B and C seems to have led to the fiasco. Besides, the ECP also reportedly spent over Rs 60 billion on improvements in the poll process, including software, training of staff, etc.
Rehman Malik, chairperson of the standing committee on interior, has written to the ECP seeking answers to all questions about the RTS and the alternative system. He has sought details about the number of complaints received from ROs and asked if the IT section detected any virus or hacking attempt in the RTS or RMS systems.
On 19 July, the committee had expressed apprehensions over the RTS and urged the ECP and NADRA to ensure that everything was in place to avoid glitches on result day.
Riazul Haq is Islamabad-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-Asia network of grassroots reporters
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