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Confusion in Pakistan increases as rigging allegations come to the fore

22 Feb 2024 - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}      

The resignation of a senior bureaucrat in Pakistan in Rawalpindi with an admission that he helped rig the 8 February elections has upset all the plans that the Pakistan Army had so carefully crafted to bring PML(N) chief Nawaz Sharif back to power.

The alphabet soup that had been doing the rounds of a Plan AB and C, have all failed, as the electorate in Pakistan decided that it wanted nothing to do with his circus. And therein lies a story, one that will be recalled in the homes of average Pakistani’s for years to come. On how an election, for the first time, upset the calculations of the real political masters of Pakistan – the Army. This prevailing confusion has now been confounded by the confessions of an official who alleges that he switched votes in favour of the PML(N)!

Adding to the prevailing confusion was the news that former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had been told by the Army to withdraw himself from the race for the Prime Minister’s office, for the sake of his daughter and political heir, Maryam Nawaz. “Nawaz Sharif could have become the prime minister to lead the coalition government for the fourth time but then his daughter would have no chance to become the Punjab chief minister”, Press Trust of India quoted a source within the PML (N). It is ironic that Nawaz Sharif returned from London hoping to become PM and that is why his brother Shehbaz Sharif got all the cases against him dropped. Now he finds himself in the wilderness again, even though it may be a temporary one.

The timing of the leak regarding Nawaz Sharif’s future appears to be an afterthought by the Army which may have well realised that it could not afford to bring Nawaz Sharif to back to power after allegations of election rigging hit media headlines. His return would only further reinforce the prevailing narrative of Army plotting to overthrow Imran Khan in favour of the PML(N) chief. Nawaz Sharif was therefore, reportedly given two choices by the military establishment after his party’s poor performance in the 8 February elections. “The first was to become premier of the coalition government in Islamabad and make his younger brother Shehbaz Sharif Punjab chief minister and the other was to leave the top post for Shehbaz and have his daughter Maryam accommodated as the Punjab chief minister. The Army can try its permutations and combinations, but the ground reality is that a coalition government is really the only option currently, as none of the three major parties, the PML-N, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), or the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) have won the necessary seats in the general elections to secure a majority in the National Assembly and, therefore, are unable to form a government on their own. 

After nearly a week of political drama following a fractured mandate delivered by the country’s voters in the 8 February elections, a six-party alliance led by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN), which won 75 seats, and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which secured 54 seats is set to form the next government. However, according to the official results the PTI, the party of former Prime Minister Imran Khan, who is currently incarcerated on multiple convictions, emerged as a clear winner of the elections, winning a total of 93 seats.

With no party having a clear majority, talks are on to form a coalition government, but even this is taking longer than expected. All know that keeping Pakistan in place at this point in time is a herculean task, one that no one wants to handle. However, the public confession by Liaqat Ali Chattha, Commissioner, Rawalpindi, to converting “losers into winners” and, “…..reversing margins of 70,000 votes in 13 National Assembly seats” has really grabbed the attention of the people of Pakistan, who are anyways tired of the manipulations by the Army in the politics of the country.

Chattha’s admission also implicated the head of Pakistan Election Commission and the country’s top judge. According to the Dawn newspaper, the Commissioner admitted he was “deeply involved in serious crime like mega election rigging 2024” and said that “stabbing the country in its back” does not allow him sleep. The Election Commission issued a statement saying that it would hold an inquiry into the allegations made by Chattha, while denying any wrongdoing by the Commission as far as the electoral process was concerned. In a news release, the electoral watchdog also said none of its officials ever issued any instructions to Chattha for a “change in the election results”.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said that this confession revealed the “involvement of the state bureaucracy in rigging in Pakistan is beginning to be exposed”. Meanwhile, thousands of people rallied in more than a dozen cities, including the capital Islamabad, claiming that the vote was rigged. Al Jazeera’s Kamal Hyder reported from Islamabad that tens of thousands came out to protest despite the fact that the government had imposed a restriction on public gatherings. In Pakistan’s Balochistan province, ethnic nationalist parties accused the military of rigging the election for PPP and PML-N and closed major highways for days. The military that has ruled Pakistan for decades has been facing criticism for its alleged role in the manipulation of election results.

In a post on X, PML(N) termed the Rawalpindi Commissioner’s actions as “a cheeky move a few days before his retirement” and “a cheap publicity tactic”. Chattha is due to retire on 13 March 2024. “The person has alleged that the PML(N) candidates were pressured to give a lead of 70,000, while the facts are completely different from his accusation,” the political party said. From prison, PTI’s Imran Khan called Chattha’s confession “incriminating”. He said, “His (Chattha’s) statement serves as a stark revelation of the countrywide systematic manipulation of election results where PTI’s significant leads were deceitfully tampered into losses, depriving the people of their rightful mandate, not only in the National Assembly but also in Provincial Assemblies,” Khan said in a post on the social media platform X.

“PTI also calls for a fair investigation and meaningful trial of all those involved in this brazen mandate theft,” he added. Senior PTI official Ali Muhammad Khan told reporters in Islamabad that Chattha’s statement proved his party was cheated. “We must be returned our mandate,” he said. Fazlur Rehman, the head of a religious political party, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, and the former head of a democratic alliance that ousted Imran Khan in a vote of no confidence in 2022, also alleged that the elections were rigged and has rejected the results. Rehman alleged that the elections were sold and said, “some were given entire assemblies in exchange for money”.

The sordid tale of electoral rigging in Pakistan is likely to remain on the headlines for some time. Additionally, the need to form a coalition government at the earliest is imperative and the Army would like it no better if the PML(N) cobbles together the parties. However, this is easier said than done, as most political parties in Pakistan realise the risks of leading a government that will require huge amounts of oxygen to keep it alive. With the economy and security situation rapidly deteriorating, it is unlikely if any one party will want to hold the fort. This is the real learning and impact of the 8 February election in Pakistan.