Islamabad, July 28: A European Union team of election observers said that Pakistan's general elections this week were eclipsed by "restrictions" on freedom of expression and an "unequal" opportunity for candidates to campaign.
In its preliminary assessment of the July 25 elections, the EU Election Observation Mission (EU EOM) said the media outlets and journalists suffered from restrictions which resulted in self-censorship.
"The European Union Election Observation Mission to Pakistan has concluded that positive changes to the legal framework were overshadowed by restrictions on freedom of expression and an unequal opportunity to campaign," it said while delivering its preliminary assessment at a press conference here.
The team, headed by EU chief observer Michael Gahler MEP (Germany), said that despite positive changes to the legal framework with the new Elections Act, and a stronger and more transparent Election Commission, the electoral process was negatively affected by the political environment.
He said that over 120 EU observers observed the opening, voting, counting and tabulation processes at 582 polling stations and tabulation centres in 113 constituencies in Punjab, Sindh, Khyber Pakthunkhwa and Islamabad.
"Voting was assessed as well-conducted and transparent. However, counting was somewhat problematic, with staff not always following procedures. In the polling stations observed, security personnel were present inside and outside all polling stations," he said.
Six major political parties, including jailed former prime minister Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N and former president Asif Ali Zardari's Pakistan Peoples Party, have alleged that the votes were rigged. They have raised questions over the counting process after Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf emerged as the single largest party in the National Assembly elections held on Wednesday.
The EU EOM said that, although there were several legal provisions aimed at ensuring a level playing field, there was a lack of equality of opportunity.
"Candidates with large political appeal and financial means, the so-called 'electables' were reported to often dominate the campaign. Uneven rules on campaign spending further undermined candidates' equal opportunity," it said.
The head of the European Parliament's delegation to the election observation mission, Jean Lambert MEP (United Kingdom), fully endorsed the preliminary statement of the EU EOM.
"We appreciate the efforts made by the Election Commission to aim for greater inclusion in the electoral process, particularly through the Gender and Disabilities Working Group," said Lambert.
The mission will remain in Pakistan until September and a final report, including recommendations for future elections, will be published afterwards.
Meanwhile, independent Fair and Free Election Network (FAFEN) in its preliminary Election Observation report said overall process of polling was smooth and fair through the country, though minor irregularities were noted.