Monday, February 19, 2024

Pakistan’s Historic Turnout Overwhelms Military’s Election Rigging Efforts


Last year in Pakistan, a bystander happened to catch, on camera, police raiding the Sialkot home of Usman Dar. At the time, Dar was an opposition candidate representing former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or PTI, party — which the military and its civilian allies were busy suppressing with abductions, raids, blackmail, and threats. Khan, a populist prime minister, was forced from office in 2022 under military pressure with the encouragement of the U.S.

A Symbol of Resistance
Through a window, video shows Pakistani police officials assaulting Dar’s elderly mother, Rehana Dar, in her bedroom. Dar’s brother, Umar Dar, was also picked up, though police only acknowledged he’d been arrested much later at a court hearing. When Usman Dar emerged from custody, he announced he was stepping down from the race and leaving the party — as many other PTI candidates have done under similar pressure.

But then came a new wrinkle, a symbol of the refusal of Khan’s supporters to bow to the military-backed government. While the news was announced that Dar was withdrawing from the race, and with another son still missing, his mother went on television to say that she would be running instead. “Khawaja Asif,” Rehana Dar said in a video posted on social media directed to the army-backed political rival of her son, “You have achieved what you wanted by making my son step down at gunpoint, but my son has quit politics, not me. Now you will face me in politics.”

A Shocking Victory
She was a political novice, an angry mother who represented the country’s frustration with its ruling elite. “Send me to jail or handcuff me. I will contest the general elections for sure,” she said while filing her nomination papers. Those papers were initially rejected — like they were for so many PTI candidates, and only PTI candidates — and she had to refile.

Nevertheless, she persisted. On election night, she shocked the country. With 99 percent of precincts counted, she had beaten that lifetime politician, Khawaja Asif, with 131,615 to 82,615 votes. The loss by Asif, who was allied with Nawaz Sharif — the military-backed candidate whose victory Vox had called “almost a fait accompli” — was a blow to the army.

Election Controversy
Then came one more wrinkle — one that many in Pakistan expected, but which was still shocking. When the full results were announced, Dar’s total had been reduced by 31,434 votes, while Asif gained votes, and he was declared the winner.

Across the country, similar reversals are flowing out from Pakistan’s election commission. As polling ended Thursday evening, early results shocked the establishment and even some dispirited supporters of Khan who had worried that Pakistani authorities had successfully done everything they could to manipulate the outcome. Those results suggested a landslide victory for ousted former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s party even as Khan himself sits in prison, ineligible to run.

Challenges and Investigations
But in several key races, results have suddenly swung toward the military-backed party after hours of unexplained delays. In the NA-128 constituency, where the PTI-backed candidate is senior lawyer Salman Akram Raja, Raja was leading with 100,000 votes in 1,310 out of 1,320 polling stations. On Friday, he was trailing by 13,522 votes. But the publicly available totals from the polling stations did not add up with the results announced by the election commission. He took the case to high court, which granted him a stay and stopped the election commission from announcing the winner pending further investigation. Following his lead, multiple PTI candidates have announced that they will take their cases to court. Rehana Dar is one of them.

The problem now for the Pakistani army is that it seems to have been unprepared for the explosion of support for Khan’s candidates. Pakistani election laws explicitly state that the “returning officer shall compile provisional results on or before 2 a.m. the day immediately following the polling day.” But for thousands of polling stations across Pakistan, results were stopped and had not come in even 24 hours after polling ended. Across the country, candidates and their supporters have refused to leave polling locations without official documentation of the vote, leading to tense and violent confrontations.

International Concerns
At the same time, because every polling station is required to fill out and distribute something called a “Form 45,” which has the vote tally from that precinct, political parties and news networks had been able to tabulate official results. That’s how we know that Dar was so far ahead. Those Form 45s are officially aggregated at election headquarters, and a Form 47 is produced totaling all the numbers. Prior to the election, the military succeeded in replacing the election workers with state bureaucrats — a move that was blessed by the country’s Supreme Court only after two dissident justices were forced off the bench. Those workers and their fantastical Form 47s are now the focus of the country’s attention.

The changes in the official counts also finally caught the attention of the State Department, which had secretly supported the nation’s military in its ouster of Khan in 2022. “We join credible international and local election observers in their assessment that these elections included undue restrictions on freedoms of expression, association, and peaceful assembly,” spokesperson Matthew Miller said. “We condemn electoral violence, restrictions on the exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including attacks on media workers, and restrictions on access to the Internet and telecommunication services and are concerned about allegations of interference in the electoral process. Claims of interference or fraud should be fully investigated.”

Looking Ahead
But it was the next line of Miller’s statement that gives Khan’s supporters hope that the theft of the election may not be inevitable. “The United States is prepared to work with the next Pakistani government, regardless of political party, to advance our shared interests,” Miller said. “We now look forward to timely, complete results that reflect the will of the Pakistani people.” Members of Congress have begun demanding the U.S. not recognize a new government without a thorough investigation of the fraud. Whether that clear mandate is listened to remains an open question.

Prior to the election, many observers had raised alarm about potential fraud in Pakistani elections. Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International voiced concerns over internet shutdown on election day. Those concerns turned out to be warranted; the Pakistani military did indeed shut down internet and mobile data for most of the day.

The independent candidates are mostly members of PTI who were forced to run as independent in a court decision that was called “a huge blow to fundamental rights” in Pakistan. The move also deprived PTI of its electoral symbol — the cricket bat — and had candidates run on randomly assigned symbols.

On Friday, Sharif absurdly declared victory. From prison, so did Khan, with artificial intelligence being used to simulate his voice reading a statement. “By voting yesterday, you have set up the foundation for true freedom,” the “authorized AI voice” of Khan said, making reference to the “movement for true freedom” he has led since his ouster. “I had complete faith that you would go out to vote. Your massive turnout shocked everyone.”

The historic turnout in Pakistan has swamped the military’s effort to rig the election. The results are contested and investigations are ongoing as Pakistan navigates through this challenging political landscape.

The post Historic Turnout in Pakistan Is Swamping the Military’s Effort to Rig the Election appeared first on The Intercept.

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