Pakistan will go to an election on Wednesday amid an atmosphere of fear and suspicion as major political parties hint at pre-poll rigging, political manipulation and judicial bias to weaken political opponents and give favored parties a walkover in the upcoming ballots.
According to the latest exit polls, the election could produce a hung parliament, as Punjab, with 148 National Assembly seats out of 272, will vote for the Nawaz Sharif-led Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI).
Polling conducted by the Institute of Public Opinion Research (IPOR) says PML-N is ahead with 51% of the vote bank in Punjab – a mere 2% increase over 2013, while PTI posted a tremendous gain with over 30% in the same province, compared to 19% in 2013. An electoral win in Punjab guarantees a win nationally.
Gallup Pakistan’s national polling gave an edge to PTI with 30% of votes around the country compared to 27% for PML-N and 17% for Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). However, Pulse Consultant’s national surveys predict a victory for the PML-N with 26% of the vote, followed by PTI with 25% and PPP 16%. In all, the difference between the polls on votes for PML-N and PTI suggest the margin could be wafer-thin.
Political analysts claim that pro-establishment clusters like Jeep Group (dissident PML-N independent candidates), banned outfits, Balochistan Awami Party (BAP), Grant Democratic Alliance (GDA) in Sindh, and Pak Sarzamin Party (PSP) will decide the post-poll political dispensation by lending their support to the PTI.
Extremists allowed to run
Banned extremist outfits fielded candidates in more than 90% of seats as the Election Commission of Pakistan exercised leniency in registering radical Islamic groups. It is believed to be a well-thought-out strategy to get them into mainstream politics.
Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), which crippled the national capital Islamabad for over three weeks last year, fielded more than 150 candidates in the election. And the Jeep Group fielded 119 candidates. The ‘Jeep’ symbol was allotted in large numbers to the PML-N dissidents, raising questions about a possible partisan role by the caretaker government and Election Commission.
Mainstream political parties including PPP, Awami National Party, Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), PML-N, Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PMAP), and Pashtun and Baloch nationalist forces raised serious doubts about the fairness of the upcoming election saying that ‘political engineering’ by the “deep state” would erode the political system.
“The large-scale pre-poll maneuvering has raised a question mark on the election and made it controversial even before its holding. The damage reached to such an extent that it is now beyond control,” a senior leader and former senator of the ANP, Afrasiab Khattak told Asia Times.
Khattak said parliamentarians were demonized as thieves, smugglers, and fake degree holders through a sustained and systematic campaign run on the controlled electronic media. The PML-N led provincial government in Baluchistan, he said, was overthrown by a parliamentary coup in November 2017 and an “independent “group was strengthened to elect its own chairman of the Senate despite the presence of political parties in the House.
Security agencies accused of manipulation
A senior judge of the Islamabad High Court, Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui shocked everyone on Saturday when he accused the “mighty security agencies” of manipulating judicial proceedings. He claimed that the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) approached the High Court Chief Justice and demanded that Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz should not get bail until the election process ends.
Political parties raised concerns on the extended role given to the Pakistan Army in the conduct of the polls. The Election Commission of Pakistan, they say, has sourced out much of its duties to the security agencies who will not only monitor the counting process but exercise magisterial power to keep a check on the presiding officers.
Contrary to the provisions of the Constitution, the Election Commission’s code of conduct states that the security forces can even take action against a Presiding Officer in cases if they find misconduct in election processes or vote counting. The code of conduct also gave a monitoring and supervisory role to watch the election process to security forces, including the conduct of presiding officers and election staff. These powers are linked with Article 245 of the Pakistan constitution and cannot be challenged in any court.
However, some of the huge powers given to security agencies under the code of conduct clash with the constitution. In some peculiar electoral procedure, the forces are required to act as partners to election staff. The standard operating procedure framed by the Election Commission for the security agencies, for example, gives the task of ‘coordinating’ with presiding officers to take snapshots and transmit Form 45 (vote- counting sheets) through the Result Transmission System to the commission. But section 90 of the Election Act 2017 only empowers the presiding officer to send electronic election data to the commission and for the returning officer before submitting original result documents.
At least 200 killed
With a day left before the election, a fresh wave of terror-related violence intensified in the country killing at least 200 people, including three candidates of BAP, ANP, and PTI in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan provinces.
The latest incident occurred on Sunday when a PTI candidate in the southern district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was killed in a suicide attack.
Raza Rumi, a columnist, policy analyst and editor of Daily Times, a Pakistan English-language newspaper, fears these killings will have a negative impact on the election turnout.
He told Asia Times: “Any terror activity at this point of time when elections are around the corner is ominous for electioneering. It will keep voters away from the polling booths and the authorities need to take immediate steps to beef up security at the polling stations.”