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)
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

* This article originally appeared on Arab News Pakistan, click here to read it.


France accuses allies of ‘political positioning’ in recognizing Palestinian state

France accuses allies of ‘political positioning’ in recognizing Palestinian state
Updated 57 min 34 sec ago
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France accuses allies of ‘political positioning’ in recognizing Palestinian state

France accuses allies of ‘political positioning’ in recognizing Palestinian state
  • French President Emmanuel Macron said the same day he would be prepared to recognize a Palestinian state, but such a move should “come at a useful moment“
  • “France is not involved in any political positioning, it is looking for diplomatic solutions to this crisis,” Sejourne added

PARIS: France’s foreign minister Wednesday accused fellow EU members Spain and Ireland of having recognized Palestinian statehood as part of “political positioning,” instead of seeking a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Spain, Ireland and Norway on Tuesday officially recognized the State of Palestine, sparking a furious response from Israel.
French President Emmanuel Macron said the same day he would be prepared to recognize a Palestinian state, but such a move should “come at a useful moment” and not be based on “emotion.”
Foreign Minister Stephane Sejourne told senators that France was “in favor of a two-state solution,” under which the states of Israel and Palestine would coexist in peace.
“By definition, the issue of recognition will of course come into that. But the concern now — which I have clearly shared with my Spanish and Irish counterparts — is what happens the day after recognition: How diplomatically useful is it?” he said.
“France is not involved in any political positioning, it is looking for diplomatic solutions to this crisis,” Sejourne added.
“It is unfortunate that a certain number of European states put political positioning first in the context of campaigning for the European elections, which does not solve anything.”
European Parliament elections are due to be held next week.
“Tell me, what exactly has the Spanish recognition changed a day later in Gaza? Nothing!” the foreign minister said.
The latest Gaza war was sparked by Palestinian militant group Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack on southern Israel, which resulted in the deaths of 1,189 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.
Militants also took 252 hostages, 121 of whom remain in Gaza, including 37 the Israeli army says are dead.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 36,171 people in Gaza, mostly civilians, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.
The Israeli military says 292 soldiers have been killed in the Gaza military campaign since the start of the ground offensive on October 27.


Nearly 3 out of 10 Afghan children face emergency levels of hunger in 2024— NGO 

Nearly 3 out of 10 Afghan children face emergency levels of hunger in 2024— NGO 
Updated 29 May 2024
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Nearly 3 out of 10 Afghan children face emergency levels of hunger in 2024— NGO 

Nearly 3 out of 10 Afghan children face emergency levels of hunger in 2024— NGO 
  • Estimated 2.9 million Afghan children under five years of age to suffer acute malnutrition in 2024, says Save The Children 
  • Afghanistan reels from immediate impacts of flood, long-term effects of drought and return of refugees from Pakistan

ISLAMABAD: About 6.5 million children in Afghanistan were forecast to experience crisis levels of hunger in 2024, a nongovernmental organization said.

Nearly three out of 10 Afghan children will face crisis or emergency levels of hunger this year as the country feels the immediate impacts of floods, the long-term effects of drought, and the return of Afghans from neighboring Pakistan and Iran, according to a report released late Tuesday by Save The Children.

New figures from global hunger monitoring body Integrated Food Security Phase Classification forecast that 28 percent of Afghanistan’s population, about 12.4 million people, will face acute food insecurity before October. Of those, nearly 2.4 million are predicted to experience emergency levels of hunger, which is one level above famine, according to Save the Children.

The figures show a slight improvement from the last report, released in October 2023, but underline the continuing need for assistance, with poverty affecting half of the population.

Torrential rain and flash floods hit northern Afghanistan in May, killing more than 400 people. Thousands of homes were destroyed or damaged and farmland was turned into mud.

Save the Children is operating a “clinic on wheels” in Baghlan province, which was hit the worst by floods, as part of its emergency response program. The organization added that an estimated 2.9 million children under the age of 5 are projected to suffer from acute malnutrition in 2024.

Arshad Malik, country director for Save the Children in Afghanistan, said that the NGO has treated more than 7,000 children for severe or acute malnutrition so far this year.

“Those numbers are a sign of the massive need for continuing support for families as they experience shock after shock,” Malik said. 

Children are feeling the devastating impacts of three years of drought, high levels of unemployment, and the return of more than 1.4 million Afghans from Pakistan and Iran, he added.

“We need long-term, community-based solutions to help families rebuild their lives,” Malik said.

More than 557,000 Afghans have returned from Pakistan since September 2023, after Pakistan began cracking down on foreigners it alleges are in the country illegally, including 1.7 million Afghans. It insists the campaign isn’t directed against Afghans specifically, but they make up most of the foreigners in the South Asian country.

In April, Save the Children said that a quarter-million Afghan children need education, food and homes after being forcibly returned from Pakistan.

Malik added that only 16 percent of funding for the 2024 humanitarian response plan has been met so far, but nearly half the population needs assistance.

“This is not the time for the world to look away,” he said.

Meanwhile, the European Union is allocating an additional 10 million euros (nearly $10.9 million) to the UN food agency for school feeding activities in Afghanistan. These latest funds from the EU follow an earlier contribution of 20.9 million euros ($22.7 million) toward the World Food Program’s school meal program in Afghanistan for 2022 and 2023.

The funding comes at a timely moment and averts WFP having to downsize its school meal program this year because of a lack of funding, the WFP said in a statement.

“Hunger can be a barrier to education. The additional EU funding to our long-standing partner WFP ensures that more children in Afghanistan receive nutritious food,” said Raffaella Iodice, chargé d’affaires of the EU’s delegation to Afghanistan.

The WFP’s statement said that the agency will be able to use the funding to distribute fortified biscuits or locally produced nutritious school snacks to pupils in more than 10,000 schools in the eight provinces of Farah, Ghor, Jawzjan, Nangarhar, Nuristan, Paktika, Uruzgan and Zabul.

Last year, WFP supported 1.5 million school-age children through this program.


Poland charges Ukrainian with ‘incitement to espionage’

Poland charges Ukrainian with ‘incitement to espionage’
Updated 29 May 2024
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Poland charges Ukrainian with ‘incitement to espionage’

Poland charges Ukrainian with ‘incitement to espionage’
  • The Ukrainian citizen, identified as Oleksandr D., was arrested in early March
  • He is suspected of having “encouraged a Polish citizen to participate in foreign intelligence activity against Poland“

WARSAW: Poland’s security services on Wednesday said a 26-year-old Ukrainian man had been charged with provocation and incitement to espionage against the NATO member.
In recent months Poland, a staunch Ukraine supporter, has seen several sabotage plots on its territory that it has blamed on neighboring Russia.
The Ukrainian citizen, identified as Oleksandr D., was arrested in early March and is suspected of having “encouraged a Polish citizen to participate in foreign intelligence activity against Poland,” security services spokesman Jacek Dobrzynski said in a statement.
“This activity was to consist of sharing photos of military vehicles that were intended for aiding Ukraine and which were crossing the border between Poland and Ukraine,” he added.
In exchange for information, the Polish man was to receive a payment of 15,000 euros ($16,000), Dobrzynski said, without specifying if he had accepted the offer.
Oleksandr D. was charged on Tuesday and faces at least eight years in prison if found guilty.
Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk has said previously that several attempts at diversion, sabotage and arson had been undertaken in Poland on behalf of Russia over the past few months.
These acts “were fortunately averted thanks to the vigilance of our services and allies,” Tusk said in mid-May.
He also said that Poland would reinforce its intelligence services amid the sabotage attempts and concerns over Russia.
A loyal ally of Kyiv’s, Poland is a main country through which Western nations are transferring weapons and munitions to Ukraine to help in the fight against Russia.


Volcano in Iceland erupts again

Volcano in Iceland erupts again
Updated 29 May 2024
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Volcano in Iceland erupts again

Volcano in Iceland erupts again
  • Authorities had warned of the risk of renewed volcanic activity in the area just south of the capital Reykjavik

COPENHAGEN: A volcano in southwestern Iceland erupted on Wednesday, live video from the area showed, making it the fifth outbreak since December.
The new outburst happened as another eruption on the Reykjanes peninsula recently ended after spewing fountains of molten rock for almost eight weeks.
Authorities had warned of the risk of renewed volcanic activity in the area just south of the capital Reykjavik as studies showed magma accumulated underground.
The fiery spectacle underlines the challenges the island nation of almost 400,000 people face as scientists have warned eruptions could happen over and over in Reykjanes for decades or even centuries.
The eruption was the eighth on the peninsula, home to some 30,000 people, since 2021 when geological systems that were dormant for some 800 years again became active.
Previous incidents had disrupted district heating, closed key roads and even razed several houses in the Grindavik fishing town, where only a few residents have since returned.
In an attempt to prevent further damage man-made barriers have been built to steer lava away from infrastructure including the Svartsengi geothermal power plant, the Blue Lagoon outdoor spa and Grindavik.
Icelanders often refer to their country as the “Land of Fire and Ice” as a tribute to its otherworldly landscape forged by glaciers and volcanoes which is positioned between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates, making it a seismic hotbed.
While a 2010 eruption in a different part of Iceland grounded some 100,000 flights internationally due to huge ash clouds, Reykjanes is typically home to fissure outbreaks which do not reach into the stratosphere.


Philippines to develop halal travel offerings in top resort island

Philippines to develop halal travel offerings in top resort island
Updated 29 May 2024
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Philippines to develop halal travel offerings in top resort island

Philippines to develop halal travel offerings in top resort island
  • Known for its beaches and coral reefs, Boracay is one of the world’s most famous islands
  • Philippines wants to grow its Muslim-friendly and halal tourism portfolio, tourism secretary says

MANILA: The Philippines is developing halal-friendly options in its top resort island of Boracay to attract more Muslim visitors, Tourism Secretary Christina Frasco said on Wednesday.

Located in the province of Aklan, in the center of the Philippine archipelago, Boracay is known for its white sand beaches and coral reefs that make it one of the world’s most famous islands.

Tourism is a key sector for the Philippines, and its Department of Tourism has lately been trying to attract more Muslim visitors, particularly by ensuring that they have access to halal products and services.

“Muslim-friendly and halal tourism is a portfolio that we wish to grow,” Frasco told reporters.

“We are now in talks with a Boracay local government unit, as well as the Department of Tourism, to … offer halal-friendly tourism in Boracay.”

 

 

The predominantly Catholic Philippines — where Muslims constitute about 10 percent of the nearly 120 million population — welcomed more than 2 million international travelers since the beginning of the year and marked a 10 percent increase in visitors arriving from Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which have been among the Philippine government’s key emerging-market targets.

The Philippines was recognized with the Emerging Muslim-friendly Destination of the Year award in 2023 at the Halal in Travel Global Summit in Singapore. Since then, the Muslim market has been its priority.

Earlier this month, the Department of Tourism led a delegation to the Arabian Travel Market in Dubai, where it promoted the country’s best destinations.

“When we attended the Arabian Travel Market … we signed a memorandum of understanding with Megaworld such that all their properties will be converted into Muslim-friendly and halal-friendly tourism establishments,” Frasco said, referring to one of the largest Philippine hospitality chains.

“What we expect is really to be able to tap into this billion-dollar industry that is halal and Muslim-friendly tourism.”