How a phone app and a database served up Imran Khan’s Pakistan poll win

PTI was secretive about the technology plan ahead of the July 25 poll. (AFP)
Updated 06 August 2018
0

How a phone app and a database served up Imran Khan’s Pakistan poll win

ISLAMABAD: A phone app and a database of more than 50 million voters were key weapons in the successful campaign of cricket legend Imran Khan in last month’s general election, though rivals allege Khan also received clandestine aid from Pakistan’s powerful military.
How Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) party used the database and the associated app represents a sea change in the antiquated way in which Pakistan’s biggest parties conduct elections, from pre-poll targeting of voters to on-the-day mobilization of supporters.
PTI was secretive about the technology plan ahead of the July 25 poll, fearing rivals could copy it, but several party workers showed Reuters how the app transformed their campaign and gave them an edge.
The phone app proved especially useful in getting supporters to the polls when the government’s own telephone information service giving out polling place locations suffered major problems on election day, leaving other parties scrambling.
It partly explains why Khan’s party managed to win tight-margin races in the nuclear-armed nation of 208 million people, though Khan’s rivals allege he also benefited from the powerful military’s support — an allegation he staunchly denies.
“It’s had a great impact,” said Amir Mughal, tasked with using the app and database, known as the Constituency Management System (CMS), to elect Asad Umar, a lawmaker who won his seat in Islamabad and will be Khan’s new finance minister.
The small CMS unit led by Mughal, Umar’s personal secretary, was typical of how Khan’s party set up teams in constituencies across Pakistan to mine the database, identifying voters by household, zeroing-in on “confirmed” PTI voters, tagging them on the app, and ensuring they turned out on election day.
“Work that would take days of weeks is being completed in one to two hours,” Mughal told Reuters in Umar’s office minutes after the polls shut.
Khan’s PTI surpassed expectations to scoop about 115 seats out of 272 elected members of parliament, while the party of ousted and jailed premier Nawaz Sharif trailed in second with 64 seats.
Developed by a small tech team, the CMS was a key response to Khan’s bitter complaints after the 2013 poll loss that his party failed to translate mass popularity into votes because it did not know the “art of winning elections.”
Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) ran a more erratic campaign, hurt by divisions within the party and the loss of key leaders who were either disqualified or in case of Sharif and his daughter, jailed.
Weeks before the elections, Khan sent out a video via WhatsApp urging PTI candidates to embrace CMS.
“I have seen and experienced how it works and I’m using it in all five constituencies I am contesting,” Khan said in the video message, seen by Reuters. “The faster you apply this system, the easier your life will become,” Khan added.

“VILLAINS“
Created by former US-based real estate businessman Tariq Din and Shahzad Gul, a tech consultant, the early version of the system was not immediately embraced by PTI.
But Umar, the incoming finance minister, and wealthy politician Jahangir Tareen Khan, a close Khan ally, were among the first to see its potential. After the software helped deliver strong results in the 2015 local elections, the party was won over, according to senior PTI officials who work on the CMS software.
For the national election PTI focused on 150 constituencies it felt it had the best chance of winning. Party workers said they used scanning software to digitise publicly-available electoral voter lists to create the database.
By typing in a voter’s identity card number into the app, PTI workers could see details such as family home address, who else lived in the same household, and where they needed to vote.
It became so crucial to the PTI campaign that when on election day the program went down for an hour, it triggered some panic in the party’s ranks.
A senior CMS official showed Reuters WhatsApp messages that flooded in when the system ground to a halt under the weight of database searches, which totalled 20 million on election day.
“What the hell is going on?,” inquired one of Khan’s closest allies. This politician then called the CMS team and made his feelings clear, saying: “If the system doesn’t work, we will lose the elections and you guys will be the villains.”
When CMS came back up, Khan’s ally messaged again: “Thank God.”
CMS architects say the system’s power was only partly utilized as there was not enough time to train workers across the country and some politicians resisted using it.

ADVANTAGES
In the run up to election day, PTI workers were also able to print out “parchis,” or slips, that voters needed to enter the polling station. PML-N workers had to help voters fill the paper slips with a pen.
In a large nation where illiteracy hovers above 40 percent, that meant PML-N workers had to write out millions of slips for the 12.9 million voters who backed Sharif’s party, stopping those workers from canvassing or doing other vital work.
“It’s a paradigm shift,” said another senior CMS operator. “We changed the party, turning social media popularity into reality.”


Russia pioneering return of ‘Daesh children’

Updated 1 min 31 sec ago
0

Russia pioneering return of ‘Daesh children’

MOSCOW: As the end nears for the Daesh enclave in Syria and the fate of militants’ family members becomes a prescient issue, Russia can be seen as a pioneer in systematically returning children of extremist fighters home.
A potential homecoming of the many foreign women who have gone to live in the Daesh “caliphate” and their children, many of whom were born there, has been a subject of debate in Russia, with some security chiefs seeing them as potential threats.
Earlier this month, 27 children, from four to 13 years old, were flown from Iraq to the Moscow region.
Clutching stuffed toys and bundled in winter jackets, the children were carried off the cargo plane to face the Russian winter after years in the desert.
After health exams, they would be given into the care of their uncles, aunts, and grandparents in the Russian North Caucasus, the majority-Muslim territory in the south of Russia that is home to most of the Russians that had joined the Daesh group.
Another 30 children were brought back in late December.
“They attend school and kindergarten. Volunteers work with them and talk to them about what they have been through, explaining how they have been indoctrinated,” said Kheda Saratova, an adviser to Chechnya leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who has assumed a central role in the process of repatriating extremists’ relatives.
Russian authorities have given sometimes conflicting figures of returnees. Saratova said that about 200 children have been brought to Russia, but nearly 1,400 are still stuck in Iraq and Syria.
Kadyrov, a longtime Kremlin protege with vast resources, began efforts to bring back fighters’ children in 2017. Diplomatic negotiations are often led by Aleppo-born Chechnya senator Ziyad Sabsabi.
Endorsing Kadyrov’s efforts, President Vladimir Putin in late 2017 called the drive to return the children “a very honorable and correct deed” and promised to help.
“It’s very good for the image of Kadyrov. He seems somebody who doesn’t just use violence against terrorists but who builds mosques and hands out humanitarian aid,” said Grigory Shvedov, who edits a Caucasus-focused news website Caucasian Knot.
When he began Russia’s intervention in Syria in 2015, Putin justified it by the need to kill extremists before they come to Russia.
Although some regions have tried rehabilitation programs for extremists, these have failed to catch on at the national level. Young men who returned from Syria or Iraq and turned themselves in have faced harsh punishment.
This month Russia’s Supreme Court confirmed a 16-year-term for a young man who went to Syria as a 19-year-old student and worked as a cook and driver on Daesh-controlled territory for six months.
Returning the wives of jihadists is also complicated by the absence of an extradition agreement between Russia and Iraq, where many have been sentenced, sometimes to life, in prison.
But there is also reluctance by Russia’s powerful security services to bring home adult civilians.
FSB chief Alexander Bortnikov in November noted that many women with children exiting conflict zones have been used by militants as suicide bombers or recruiters.
“The FSB sees them as dangerous, even though many of these wives purchase their freedom from the Kurds and will eventually return one way or another,” said Saratova.
Any affiliation with Daesh terrorists is a crime, since the group is banned under Russian law.
“Some sort of amnesty has been promised to many, but it doesn’t actually happen,” said Shvedov. “They are put on trial, (charges) sometimes trumped up and sometimes real.”
Last year, two women returned from Syria to their native Dagestan and were swiftly convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison. The court eventually ruled to delay their time in prison until their children are older.
The children themselves face a difficult reintegration process into life in Russia, a country they barely know, after spending formative years in the “caliphate.”
Russian authorities hope that bringing them back into their extended families can minimize risks of radicalization once they reach adulthood in the Caucasus, a region with a history of extremism.