Pakistan counts votes after election tainted by violence, mobile service cuts, rigging allegations

Pakistan counts votes after election tainted by violence, mobile service cuts, rigging allegations
Polling staff start counting votes as polls end during country's national elections in Karachi on February 8, 2024. (AFP)
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Updated 08 February 2024
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Pakistan counts votes after election tainted by violence, mobile service cuts, rigging allegations

Pakistan counts votes after election tainted by violence, mobile service cuts, rigging allegations
  • A clear picture is likely to emerge early on Friday as counting continues through the night
  • At least nine people killed in multiple attacks in Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan began counting votes after polling ended on Thursday in a closely watched general election that laid bare the turbulent state of the South Asian nation’s politics, with the vote tainted by militant attacks, suspended mobile phone services and allegations of rigging and disarray at polling booths.

Thursday’s vote was the culmination of an especially contentious election season in which allegations of military meddling took center-stage, casting a shadow over a historic event that marks only the country’s third-ever democratic transition of power. The army, which has ruled for over three decades of Pakistan’s history since independence in 1947, strongly denies interfering in political affairs.

The government’s decision to suspend mobile data services across the country minutes before voting began was also seen by many as an effort to keep opposition voters from getting information or coordinating activities, but the interior ministry said it opted for the blockade to ensure the security of polling stations after at least 28 people were killed in two explosions near election offices in the southwestern province of Balochistan on Wednesday.

Networks only began to be restored in some parts of the country more than three hours after voting ended.

On Thursday, at least nine people, including two children, were killed in a number of attacks in the Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces.

In the rest of the country, things remained calm though there were reports of delays in the opening of some polling stations and voters complained of mismanagement.

“On the conclusion of the process of polling for General Elections 2024, I announce with immense satisfaction that the overall security situation across the country was kept generally stable to ensure the peaceful conduct of free and fair elections,” Interior Minister Dr. Gohar Ejaz said in a statement.

“Despite a few isolated incidents, the overall situation remained under control, demonstrating the effectiveness of our security measures.”

 

 

Experts said the election was largely peaceful.

“This is the first election in Pakistan’s history that has remained remarkably peaceful, with only a few minor incidents considering the scale of the event,” said Kanwar Dilshad, a former secretary of the election commission. 

“The closure of mobile phone signals did not significantly impact turnout, wherever I went in [city of Lahore], there were long queues of voters waiting patiently … There have been no signs of rigging or intimidation on election day.”

Ahmed Bilal Mahboob, a foremost election expert in Pakistan, said the mobile network shutdown was “understandable” given security concerns:

“But I don’t think it made a major impact on the fairness of elections.”

“CLOSE FIGHTS”

The election comes at a time when the Pakistani economy is beset by record high inflation, falling foreign exchange reserves, a depreciating currency, low consumer confidence and slow growth caused by tough reforms carried out to meet the conditions of a last-gasp $3 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved last year.

Tensions between civilian politicians, particularly from the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party of jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan, and the powerful military, also ran high as millions of Pakistanis went out to vote.

Khan, arguably the central pole of Pakistani politics, was missing from Thursday’s elections, as he has been in jail since August last year and is also disqualified from running for public office for ten years. The former premier was convicted in three back-to-back cases this month and faces dozens of other legal challenges, including one case in which he is accused of ordering violent attacks on military installations on May 9, 2023, which could entail the death sentence. Khan says all the cases are politically motivated to sideline him and his party from elections.

In the run-up to the polls, Khan’s PTI complained of a widening crackdown against the party, including not being allowed to campaign freely, and analysts questioned the legitimacy of an election that Khan, the main opposition leader and arguably the country’s most popular politician, was not allowed to contest.

Khan’s key challenger is the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party of three-time former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who returned to Pakistan last year from self-imposed exile to lead the party ahead of national elections.

Sharif’s last three terms as prime minister in 1990-93, 1997-99, and 2013-17 ended before he could complete his tenures, as he was removed by a military-backed president in 1993, ousted in a military coup in 1999, and disqualified by the Supreme Court in 2017.

His political fortunes have risen and fallen on his relationship with the military, with which he has repeatedly fallen out after reportedly pushing for more civilian control in government, only to find himself once more in its favor time and again.

In the last election in 2018, it was Sharif’s PML-N that widely complained of rigging and manipulation. A year earlier, Sharif had been ousted by the Supreme Court as prime minister and disqualified for life from running for public office. He later left for the United Kingdom after being granted medical bail and declined to return.

But as he came back to Pakistan in October last year, corruption cases against him evaporated and the bar against contesting in polls was lifted. Sharif is now widely seen as the frontrunner in elections, with an edge over rivals due to the backing of the military.

The PML_N leader has denied the generals have thrown their weight behind him or that the results of the election are pre-decided. 

TV channels started making projections of first results after voting closed at 5pm but a clear picture is likely to emerge early on Friday as counting continues through the night. The Election Commission is expected to announce official results tomorrow, Friday.

“Despite the setbacks to PTI in the pre-poll phase, I don’t think that results are predetermined,” Mahboob, the election expert, said. “We are witnessing close fights in most constituencies.”

He predicted that hundreds of independent candidates backed by the PTI would be able to win a “respectable number of seats” but would not be able to secure anything close to a majority in the National or Punjab assemblies. 

“They may secure close to a majority in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assembly,” Mahboob said, referring to a province that the PTI ruled from 2013-2023. “They will play an important role by lending their support to any candidate for prime minister and chief ministers.”

He predicted a “coalition government” led by the PML-N at the center. 

Syed Mudassar Rizvi, the CEO of election observer group FAFEN, said independent candidates would add intrigue to the government formation process, “as they have the freedom to align with any party, form their own group, join the opposition, or become part of the government.”

“DEFINING AN ENEMY”

But there are many observers who believe the results of Thursday’s vote are predetermined.

“Each time, one party or another has been targeted as the party that must be kept out of power and this time that party is PTI,” Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States and currently a scholar at Washington’s Hudson Institute, told Arab News. “The military usually proceeds by defining an enemy and that enemy right now is Imran Khan.”

“The pattern is not new nor are the [security] establishment’s tactics,” he said, adding that the PTI’s vast social media presence and the celebrity status of its leader were amplifying the controversy more than in the past.

“Pakistan seems stuck with the hybrid model of partial democracy and military intervention. That will not change with this election. The only issue is whether Imran Khan’s popularity will dent the next hybrid regime’s ability to function effectively,” Haqqani added.

Sarwar Bari, National Coordinator at the not-for-profit Pattan Development Organization, said the 2024 election was peculiar in the “very transparent” nature of the manipulation and intimidation taking place.

“In the past, it used to be very subtle,” he told Arab News. “But this is unprecedented, at this level, so intense and widespread rigging.”

“I have been saying that this election is neither free nor fair,” Bari added, “but it is an absolutely transparent election because whatever is happening is happening in the clear light of day.”

At a polling station in Islamabad, an elderly woman, who declined to be named, said she was voting for “Khan and only Khan.”

“I am voting for the one who is being suppressed,” she told Arab News. “He is my prince, my son.”

But Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, who is in Pakistan to head the Commonwealth Observers mission, said he was “pleased” with election arrangements, and had observed calm at the polling stations he visited.

“I believe that by the end of the day the people of Pakistan will be happy,” he told reporters. “On Sunday we will give a comprehensive report on this election.”

With additional inputs from Aamir Saeed in Islamabad


Pakistan PM prays for recovery of Saudi Arabia’s King Salman

Pakistan PM prays for recovery of Saudi Arabia’s King Salman
Updated 10 sec ago
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Pakistan PM prays for recovery of Saudi Arabia’s King Salman

Pakistan PM prays for recovery of Saudi Arabia’s King Salman
  • Saudi king is due to undergo treatment for lung inflammation, SPA reported
  • Shehbaz Sharif says King Salman sincere friend of Pakistan, guide for Muslim world

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif on Monday extended prayers for the recovery of Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, who is due to undergo treatment for lung inflammation.

The treatment will consist of a course of antibiotics at Al-Salam Palace in Jeddah, the state-run Saudi Press Agency reported on Sunday.

The king underwent medical tests at the royal clinics at the palace earlier on Sunday after he suffered from a high temperature and joint pain.

“I have learnt with grave concern about the health of His Majesty King Salman bin Abdulaziz. His Majesty is not only a sincere friend of Pakistan but as the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, a leader and guide for the entire Muslim ummah,” Sharif said on X.

“The people of Pakistan join me in praying to the Almighty for His Majesty’s complete recovery and swift return to full health.”

Pakistan and Saudi Arabia enjoy strong trade, defense and cultural ties. The Kingdom is home to a large number of Pakistani expatriates and serves as the top source of remittances to the cash-strapped South Asian country.

Saudi Arabia has also often come to cash-strapped Pakistan’s aid by regularly providing it oil on deferred payment and offering direct financial support to help stabilize its economy and shore up its forex reserves.


Net-metering, tax controversies cloud future of solarization in Pakistan despite government clarification

Net-metering, tax controversies cloud future of solarization in Pakistan despite government clarification
Updated 20 May 2024
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Net-metering, tax controversies cloud future of solarization in Pakistan despite government clarification

Net-metering, tax controversies cloud future of solarization in Pakistan despite government clarification
  • Government says it won’t end net-metering policy for solar power producers, promises to honor commitments made by companies
  • Pakistan’s energy woes stem from high capacity charges consumers pay due to long-term government contracts with power producers

KARACHI: Controversies about net-metering and imposition of a new tax have cast a cloud over Pakistan’s transition to solar energy despite the government’s ambitious plans, stakeholders said on Monday, adding the situation has left them in a state of uncertainty.

Pakistan approved the net-metering policy in 2017 that allows consumers to sell excess electricity produced by their solar systems to power distribution companies, resulting in significant savings in their monthly bills.

However, the energy ministry stirred a controversy last month by declaring that net-metering was promoting “unhealthy investments” in installation of solar power by affluent domestic and industrial consumers, hinting at cutting the buyback rates.

“Before this [controversy], people were shifting to solar [energy] in such a way that we thought that 100 percent Pakistan embraced solar energy,” Zulfiqar Ali, an importer, supplier and installer of solar panels, told Arab News on Monday.

“Now, we’re witnessing a stark contrast, a slowdown in inquiries, stagnation in projects, all amidst a talk of governmental reconsideration of solar energy policies.”

Ali said the net-metering issue had a lot of effect on the market as the purchasing groups suddenly went silent and the deals that were going on became stagnant. “The planned projects have gone into an idle position, people are neither saying yes nor no,” he added.

Recent reports published by local media about new taxes and an end to net-metering policy further compounded the situation and prompted Energy Minister Awais Leghari to explain the government’s position on the matter. 

“We completely reject these stories. The agreements our companies have made with net-metering users, whether they are for five years, six years, or seven years, will not be altered in any way and the government will not damage its reputation, nor will it cause any inconvenience to those investors,” Leghari said at a press conference in Lahore on Sunday.

He said the government was fully committed to renewable energy and solarization and was in favor of continuing the net-metering policy. 

“If, after studying it over the next few months, there is a need to revise it, it will be done very responsibly and in consultation with stakeholders,” Leghari said.

“After the approval of the entire government, if necessary, we will rationalize this. At this moment, we are committed to fulfilling all the contracts we have signed with various people. We will uphold the integrity of the entire government and move forward together.”

But despite the government’s assurances, an atmosphere of uncertainty prevails in the South Asian country with regard to solarization.

“I wanted to install solar panels at my rooftop to mitigate the impact of high electricity bills but now I am unable to take a decision because of the government’s intended moves of either taxing panels or curtailing net-metering benefits,” said Khalid Abbas, a resident of Karachi, adding that he would wait for clarity on the subject.

Solar panel suppliers said people, who were buying solar panels by selling their cars or jewelry, had stopped purchasing the equipment. 

“Residential consumers who wanted to install 5-20KW panels have stopped and are waiting for clarity,” Zulfiqar said.

Pakistan’s energy woes stem from the substantially high electricity bills, mainly due to the capacity charges that are as high as 65 percent and the nation is bound to pay these to power producers, even though their plants stand idle. 

The power purchase price (PPP), or the average per unit price based on the generation cost, is Rs20.60, which includes Rs14.09 capacity charges, and Rs6.21 fuel and variable charges, according to Pakistan’s reference tariff for fiscal year 2023-2024.

Pakistani energy experts believe the volume with which solar energy is increasing is still “insignificant” and does not even make 1 percent of the total power generation in the country.

“But the way it is going on in Pakistan, perhaps a significant portion of our net-metering will be done from it,” Dr. Khalid Waleed, an expert on energy economics, told Arab News. “Around 2,000MWs will be coming from net-metering. So, it should not be discouraged at all.”

When consumers switch to solar power, Waleed said, capacity charges are borne by other consumers that ultimately increases their power burden. 

Experts say the country won’t be able to get rid of the capacity charges before 2050 due to long-term contracts made with power producers.


Pakistan Deputy PM arrives in Kazakhstan to attend SCO Foreign Ministers’ meeting

Pakistan Deputy PM arrives in Kazakhstan to attend SCO Foreign Ministers’ meeting
Updated 20 May 2024
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Pakistan Deputy PM arrives in Kazakhstan to attend SCO Foreign Ministers’ meeting

Pakistan Deputy PM arrives in Kazakhstan to attend SCO Foreign Ministers’ meeting
  • The SCO is a major trans-regional organization and its member states collectively represent nearly half of world population
  • Deputy PM Ishaq Dar will meet Kyrgyz FM Jeenbek Kulubaev tonight to discuss the latest situation after Bishkek mob violence

ISLAMABAD: Ishaq Dar, Pakistan’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister, on Monday arrived in Kazakhstan to attend a meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the Pakistani foreign ministry said.

Founded in 2001, the SCO is a major trans-regional organization spanning South and Central Asia, with China, Russia, Pakistan, India, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan as its permanent members. The SCO member states collectively represent nearly half of the world’s population and a quarter of global economic output. 

The organization’s agenda of promoting peace and stability, and seeking enhanced linkages in infrastructure, economic, trade and cultural spheres, is aligned with Pakistan’s own vision of enhancing economic connectivity as well as peace and stability in the region.

Upon arrival at the Astana airport, Dar was received by Director of the Kazakh Ministry of Foreign Affairs Nursalimuly Yergalym, Pakistan’s Ambassador in Astana Nauman Bashir Bhatti and Pakistan’s National Coordinator for the SCO, Ambassador Marghoob Saleem Butt.

“In Astana, a meeting has been arranged between the Deputy Prime Minister Dar with the Foreign Minister of Kyrgyz Republic, Jeenbek Kulubaev, this evening in order to discuss the latest situation in Bishkek with a view to ensure the well-being of Pakistani students,” the Pakistan foreign ministry said in a statement.

Frenzied mobs targeted hostels of medical universities and private lodgings of international students, including Pakistanis, in Bishkek last week after videos of a brawl between Kyrgyz and Egyptian students went viral on social media.

Pakistan has since then ramped efforts to repatriate its students from the city and more than 600 Pakistani students have returned home via three different flights. According to official statistics, around 10,000 Pakistani students are enrolled in various educational institutions in Kyrgyzstan, with nearly 6,000 residing and studying in Bishkek.

In Astana, Dar will represent Pakistan at the two-day meeting of the SCO Council of Foreign Ministers. He will also hold bilateral meetings with his counterparts on the sidelines of the summit.

Since becoming a full member of the SCO in 2017, Pakistan has been actively contributing toward advancing the organization’s core objectives through its participation in various SCO mechanisms.

During his visit to China last week, Dar also met SCO Secretary-General Ambassador Zhang Ming and reiterated Pakistan’s commitment to the organization’s charter and its ideals, the Pakistani foreign ministry said in a statement.

“He expressed Pakistan’s strong commitment to advancing SCO’s security and development cooperation agenda,” the statement said.


Pakistan gear up for FIFA World Cup Qualifiers matches against Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan

Pakistan gear up for FIFA World Cup Qualifiers matches against Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan
Updated 20 May 2024
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Pakistan gear up for FIFA World Cup Qualifiers matches against Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan

Pakistan gear up for FIFA World Cup Qualifiers matches against Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan
  • Pakistan will play a home match against Saudi Arabia on June 6 in Islamabad
  • It will be followed by an away match in Tajikistan on June 11, the PFF says

ISLAMABAD: The Pakistan football team has begun practicing in Islamabad for the upcoming matches against Saudi Arabia and Tajikistan as part of the FIFA World Cup qualifier round-2, the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) said on Monday.

The Pakistan side is scheduled to play a home match against Saudi Arabia on June 6 in Islamabad, which would be followed by an away match in Tajikistan on June 11. Pakistan is in Group G along with Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Jordan.

A total of 36 football squads have been split into nine groups with four teams each in the second round of qualifiers. The winners and runners-up from each group would progress through to the third round of the World Cup qualifiers.

“Head coach Stephen Constantine is leading the team’s efforts, focusing on refining their skills and tactics for the encounter against one of the football powerhouses (Saudi Arabia),” the PFF said in a statement.

“Goalkeeping coaches Rogerio Ramos and Noman Ibrahim have been dedicating their efforts to the goalkeepers, while fitness coach Claudio Altieri is ensuring peak performance in preparation for the crucial match.”

Preliminary Pakistan squad

Goalkeepers: Hassan Ali and Tanveer

Defenders: Haseeb Khan, Mamoon Moosa Khan, Huzaifa, Waqar Ihtisham, Abdul Rehman, Umar Hayat, Muhammad Adeel, Muhammad Saddam and Zain ul Abideen

Midfielders: Yasir Arafat, Alamgir Ghazi, Ali Uzair, Rajab Ali, Moin Ali, Junaid Ahmed and Fahim

Forwards: Adeel Younas, Shayak Dost, Ali Zafar and Fareedullah

The PFF said the names of diaspora players joining the national training camp later would be included in the final squad.


Pakistan heat wave to ‘intensify’ from May 23 onwards — chief meteorologist

Pakistan heat wave to ‘intensify’ from May 23 onwards — chief meteorologist
Updated 20 May 2024
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Pakistan heat wave to ‘intensify’ from May 23 onwards — chief meteorologist

Pakistan heat wave to ‘intensify’ from May 23 onwards — chief meteorologist
  • Pakistan’s largest province, Punjab, has announced school closures from May 25-31 due to heat wave
  • KP, Balochistan provinces, Kashmir, Gilgit-Baltistan regions to witness higher than average temperatures

KARACHI: A heat wave is expected to hit parts of Pakistan starting today, Monday, Pakistan’s chief meteorologist said, warning that it will “intensify” from May 23 onwards in the South Asian nation at the searing edge of climate change.

Pakistan’s disaster management authority warned last Thursday temperatures in certain areas of Pakistan’s southern Sindh and eastern Punjab provinces could surge to 40 degrees Celsius between May 15-30. On Sunday, the Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA) warned of an “intense” heat wave in the southern districts of Punjab, with severe risk identified in Bahawalpur, Rahim Yar Khan, Dera Ghazi Khan and Multan districts from May 21 to May 27.

Heatwaves, which occur in summer, are caused by slow-moving high-pressure systems leading to prolonged high temperatures. The World Meteorological Organization defines a heat wave as five or more consecutive days during which the daily maximum temperature surpasses the average maximum temperature by 5 °C (9 °F) or more.

“Heatwave conditions are expected from today over Sindh, except Karachi, and the plain areas of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces,” Dr. Sardar Sarfaraz, the chief meteorologist at the Met Department, told Arab News. 

“Maximum temperatures are expected to remain 4-6 degrees Celsius above average until May 22 and then intensify from May 23rd with temperatures 6-8 degrees above average,” he said, urging citizens to exercise caution.

Pakistan experienced its first severe heat wave in June 2015 when temperatures as high as 49 degrees Celsius struck the country’s south, causing the deaths of about 2,000 people from dehydration and heatstroke. A heat wave in Sindh’s provincial capital of Karachi that year alone claimed 120 lives. 

Increased exposure to heat, and more heat waves, have been identified as one of the key impacts of climate change in Pakistan, with people experiencing extreme heat and seeing some of the highest temperatures in the world in recent years. The South Asian country of more than 241 million, one of the ten most vulnerable nations to climate change impacts, has also recently witnessed untimely downpours, flash floods and droughts.

Climate change-induced extreme heat can cause illnesses such as heat cramps, heat exhaustion, heatstroke, and hyperthermia. It can make certain chronic conditions worse, including cardiovascular, respiratory, and cerebrovascular disease and diabetes-related conditions, and can also result in acute incidents, such as hospitalizations due to strokes or renal disease.

Dr. Sarfaraz said other than Karachi, the rest of Sindh province would remain in the grips of scorching heat this month.

“While Karachi will not face a heat wave, the rest of the province and the plain areas of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa will be in the grip of the heatwave from today,” he said.

“In Jacobabad, the hottest city of the [Sindh] province, the temperature is expected to reach 50 degrees Celsius during this wave.”

Jacobabad is considered one of the hottest places in the world, with temperatures rising to 50 degrees Celsius between May and August, forcing nearly half the city’s 200,000 people to leave for cooler cities and towns, officials say. 

The federal capital of Islamabad, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces and the Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan regions would also see temperatures 4 to 6 degrees Celsius above average from May 21-27, Dr. Sarfaraz said. 

SCHOOLS CLOSURES 

Separately, the Punjab government announced on Monday it would close public and private schools from May 25-31. 

“In view of the surge in temperature and heat wave in the province, all public and private schools shall remain closed for seven days with effect from 25th May 2024 to 31st May 2024,” a notification from the provincial education department on Monday read, adding that exams could be conducted during these days with necessary precautions in place. 

Punjab Education Minister Rana Sikander Hayat shared the notification on social media platform X, saying the safety of children would always remain the government’s “priority.”

According to the Global Climate Risk Index, nearly 10,000 Pakistanis have died while the country has suffered economic losses worth $3.8 billion due to climate change impacts between 1999 and 2018. 

In 2022, torrential monsoon rains triggered the most devastating floods in Pakistan’s history, killing around 1,700 people and affecting over 33 million, a staggering number close to the population of Canada. Millions of homes, tens of thousands of schools and thousands of kilometers of roads and railways are yet to be rebuilt.