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HRCP sees ‘blatant’ bids to manipulate polls

By Our Correspondent
July 17, 2018

LAHORE: The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has expressed concern over what it sees as blatant, aggressive and unabashed attempts to manipulate the outcome of the upcoming elections. While it is critical that the polls are held as scheduled, there are now ample grounds to doubt their legitimacy with alarming implications for Pakistan’s transition to an effective democracy.

A delegation of senior HRCP office-bearers called on the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) at the ECP office on Monday and conveyed the Commission’s concerns.

They expressed serious reservations about the powers accorded to security forces to ensure the integrity of the polls. Some 350,000 security personnel are to be deployed outside as well as inside polling stations, and that military functionaries have been assigned magistrate’s powers on the premises, has blurred the line between civilian and non-civilian responsibility for the electoral process.

They said that such measures are unprecedented and border dangerously on micromanagement by an institution that should not be involved so closely in what is strictly a civilian mandate. The HRCP delegation demanded the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to ensure that voters are in no way intimated or influenced by the presence of such large numbers of security personnel.

The HRCP is deeply concerned that the political class is being selectively squeezed. This is apparent from reports that the PML-N members are being pressured to switch political loyalties, that candidates are being asked to return their tickets, and that electoral opposition to two mainstream parties – the PML-N in Punjab and the PPP in Sindh – is being ‘manufactured’ in strategic areas.

It reaffirms the public perception that all parties have not been given equal freedom to run their election campaigns. Candidates from parties such as the PML-N, the PPP and Awami Workers Party are reportedly being harassed by law enforcement and security personnel during their campaigns, their movement monitored or restricted without good reason, and their election banners removed en masse. The HRCP urges the ECP to monitor police treatment of different parties and to ensure that all candidates are given a level playing field.

The HRCP is alarmed at the stealthy reappearance of banned outfits under other names and the fact that the state has conferred political legitimacy on them by allowing them to contest the elections. That their campaigns have consistently misused religion to peddle a dangerous, divisive rhetoric is cause of serious concern. It demands that the ECP scrutiny process be revisited to determine why such candidates’ nomination papers were accepted without further investigation.

The HRCP feels strongly that the political space ceded to the banned outfits has emboldened militant groups. This is painfully clear from the carnage wrought in Peshawar and Mastung last week, which has now claimed almost 175 lives in suicide attacks, including that of two political candidates, Haroon Bilour of the Awami National Party and Siraj Raisani of the Balochistan Awami Party. It demands urgent action to secure the rights of political candidates to adequate security on the campaign trail.

The HRCP is strongly concerned over the recent curbs to the media specifically the numerous instances in which journalists perceived as favouring the PML-N or PPP or deemed critical of the security establishment have been subject to censorship, intimidation, harassment and abduction. The undeclared curbs to distribution in the case of Dawn and The News in cantonments, and earlier attempts to block the transmission of Geo TV are tantamount to denying people access to reports and analysis of electoral issues. Such pressures on the media serve to manipulate public opinion, forestall critical debate and leave powerful institutions unaccountable to the public.

The CEC conceded that the ECP had received and attempted to resolve many complaints, but said it could not take action on allegations of interference.

He expressed the ECP’s resolve to address specific complaints as and when received. The HRCP appeals to all citizens to approach the ECP with the necessary supporting evidence in cases where they feel that any election rules and laws have been violated.

Tahir Khalil adds: The ECP has stated that the HRCP’s concerns about the military personnel’s role in the election process are unjustified, adding they have no role in the election arrangements, polling and results’ compilation.

Commission Secretary Barar Yaqoob Fateh asserted that foolproof arrangements are in place to ensure transparency with the ECP in full control of the polling exercise. He asked was there any election in past when military’s assistance was not sought, adding that the constitution was followed in getting military’s cooperation especially in view of security threats.

He said that the ECP had in its view the record and practice of 122 by-elections where politicians had themselves requested military’s deployment.

Regarding pressure on candidates on candidates to change loyalties, he said changing parties was a routine and the ECP was not in receipt of any complaint from any candidate about coercion. He said that the ECP directed the NAB against arresting candidates when Ch Nisar Ali Khan’s opponent Raja Qamrul Islam was arrested. The NAB chairman complied with the instruction and also issued a statement to that effect. Similarly, the ECP also wrote letters to the caretaker chief minister of Punjab on the issue of manhandling of a PML-N candidate and harassment of Zahid Hamid’s son.

The secretary said the ECP also wrote to the CM when PML-N workers were detained ahead of Nawaz Sharif’s return.