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)
Short Url
Updated 08 February 2024
Follow

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.


Palestinian prime minister visits Madrid after Spain, Norway and Ireland recognize Palestinian state

Palestinian prime minister visits Madrid after Spain, Norway and Ireland recognize Palestinian state
Updated 6 sec ago
Follow

Palestinian prime minister visits Madrid after Spain, Norway and Ireland recognize Palestinian state

Palestinian prime minister visits Madrid after Spain, Norway and Ireland recognize Palestinian state
BARCELONA, Spain: Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez met with Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Mustafa and leading officials from several Middle Eastern countries in Madrid on Wednesday after Spain, Ireland and Norway recognized a Palestinian state.
The diplomatic move by the three western European nations on Tuesday was slammed by Israel and will have little immediate impact on its grinding war in Gaza, but it was a victory for the Palestinians and could encourage other Western powers to follow suit.
“On behalf of President (Mahmoud ) Abbas and the government of Palestine, the people of Palestine, we warmly welcome Spain’s recognition of the state of Palestine,” Mustafa said after their meeting with Spain’s leader and Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares.
Mustafa was joined by Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan, Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, Organization of Islamic Cooperation chairman Hussain Ibrahim Taha, and the foreign ministers for Turkiye and Jordan, members of the group called the Foreign Ministerial Committee of Arabic and Islamic countries for Gaza.
More than 140 countries recognize a Palestinian state — more than two-thirds of the United Nations.
With Spain and Ireland, there are now nine members of the 27-nation European Union that officially recognize a Palestinian state. Norway is not an EU member but its foreign policy is usually aligned with the bloc.
Slovenia, an EU member, will decide on the recognition of a Palestinian state on Thursday and forward its decision to parliament for final approval.
“We salute Spain, and we salute Norway, Ireland and Slovenia for doing the right thing. We urge other European partners to do the same thing,” said Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi.
The move to recognize a Palestinian state has caused relations between the EU and Israel to nosedive. Madrid and Dublin are pushing for the EU to take measures against Israel for its continued attacks on southern Gaza’s city of Rafah.
The decision by Spain, Ireland and Norway comes more than seven months into an assault waged by Israel following the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack in which militants stormed across the Gaza border into Israel, killing 1,200 people and taking about 250 hostage. Israel’s air and land attacks have since killed 36,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry, which doesn’t distinguish between combatants and civilians.

World Bank approves $700m to address Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh

World Bank approves $700m to address Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh
Updated 24 min 7 sec ago
Follow

World Bank approves $700m to address Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh

World Bank approves $700m to address Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh
  • Humanitarian conditions in Rohingya camps deteriorate as international aid drops
  • Maintaining 1m refugees puts stress on the Bangladeshi economy

DHAKA: The World Bank approved on Wednesday $700 million to help address the protracted humanitarian crisis facing Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh as international aid drops.

Bangladesh hosts more than 1.2 million Rohingya Muslims who over decades escaped death and persecution in neighboring Myanmar, especially during a military crackdown in 2017.

Most of them live in Cox’s Bazar district, a coastal region in eastern Bangladesh, which with their arrival became the world’s largest refugee settlement.

Humanitarian conditions in the camps have been deteriorating over the years and Bangladeshi authorities have warned they were reaching crisis levels as global aid for the oppressed stateless minority has sharply declined.

The World Bank funding is “to provide basic services and build disaster and social resilience for both the host communities and displaced Rohingya population.”

The financing will be partly a loan, Hasan Sarwar, additional secretary at the Bangladeshi Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief, told Arab News.

“Around half of the amount, which is approved for the well-being of the Rohingyas, will come here as a grant, and the rest of the amount which is for the host community people will be received as a loan,” he said.

He added: “This grant from the World Bank will be helpful for building and repairing infrastructure like roads, drainage systems, solar electricity systems, etc., inside the Rohingya camps. Besides, this fund will be spent on skill development and livelihood projects.

“The majority of the grants will be spent through the UN system for the Rohingyas’ well-being.”

Although Bangladesh is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, its government supports the Rohingya by providing not only land, but also water, electricity, a huge law-enforcement presence, as well as medical and administrative officials.

Sarwar said the government has spent around $2 billion since the beginning of the crisis on maintaining the infrastructure and managing the community of over 1 million people.

He said part of the World Bank funding could be spent on law enforcement, as security in the camps has been deteriorating amid the continuing civil war in Myanmar, which prevents a UN-backed repatriation process from taking off.

“Repatriation of the Rohingya to Myanmar is the only sustainable solution to this crisis,” Sarwar said. “It has been stalled for months due to the unrestful situation inside Myanmar. We are in touch with the Myanmar military authorities, but the repatriation is almost impossible for now.”


Indian capital records highest temperature of 49.9 Celsius

Indian capital records highest temperature of 49.9 Celsius
Updated 40 min 21 sec ago
Follow

Indian capital records highest temperature of 49.9 Celsius

Indian capital records highest temperature of 49.9 Celsius
  • Indian authorities warn there is very ‘high likelihood of developing heat illness,’ necessitating extreme care of vulnerable
  • India’s West Bengal and Mizoram states are also recovering from a cyclone that hit the country on Sunday, killing 65 people

NEW DELHI: Temperatures in India’s capital have soared to a record-high 49.9 degrees Celsius (121.8 degrees Fahrenheit) as authorities warn of water shortages in the sprawling mega-city.
The India Meteorological Department (IMD), which reported “severe heat-wave conditions,” recorded the temperatures on Tuesday at two Delhi suburb stations in Narela and Mungeshpur.
The weather bureau said the temperatures were nine degrees higher than expected, breaking a previous 2022 record for the city of 49.2C (120.6F).
Forecasters predicted similar temperatures Wednesday for the city, which has an estimated population of more than 30 million people, issuing a red alert health notice.
The alert warns there is a “very high likelihood of developing heat illness and heat stroke in all ages,” with “extreme care needed for vulnerable people.”
India is no stranger to searing summer temperatures but years of scientific research have found climate change is causing heatwaves to become longer, more frequent and more intense.
People on the streets of Delhi said there was little they could do to avoid the heat.
“Everyone wants to stay indoors,” said snack-seller Roop Ram, 57, adding he struggled to sell his savory fritters.
Ram, who lives with his wife and two sons in a cramped house, said they had a small fan but that did little to cool them down.
They were counting down until the rainy season arrives in July.
“I am not sure what else we can do to cope,” he said. “We are just waiting for the monsoon.”
Rani, 60, who uses only one name, travels by bus for two hours each morning to sell jewelry to tourists at a makeshift street stall.
“It is definitely hotter, but there is nothing we can do about it,” she said, gulping water from a bottle she brought from home. “I try to refill the bottle from anyone around.”
Heat remains high even at night, the IMD said, noting that the temperatures were “likely to reduce gradually” from Thursday.
New Delhi authorities have also warned of the risk of water shortages as the capital swelters in headache-inducing heat, cutting supplies to some areas.
Delhi Water Minister Atishi Marlena has called for “collective responsibility” to stop wasteful water use, the Times of India newspaper reported Wednesday.
“To address the problem of water scarcity, we have taken a slew of measures such as reducing water supply from twice a day to once a day in many areas,” Atishi said, according to the Indian Express.
“The water thus saved will be rationed and supplied to the water-deficient areas where supply lasts only 15 to 20 minutes a day,” she said.
The highly polluted Yamuna river, a tributary of the Ganges, runs through Delhi but its flow is hugely reduced during the summer months.
Delhi relies almost entirely on water from neighboring Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, both farming states with huge water demands.
Many blame the soaring temperatures on scorching winds from Rajasthan state, where temperatures on Tuesday were the hottest in the country at 50.5C (122.9F).
Rajasthan’s desert region of Phalodi holds India’s all-time heat record of 51C (123.8F) hit in 2016.
Neighboring Pakistan has also sweltered through a week-long heatwave, which peaked at 53C (127.4F) on Sunday in Mohenjo Daro in rural Sindh province.
Pakistan’s meteorological office said it expected temperatures to subside from Wednesday but warned further heatwaves were coming in June.
It comes as Pakistan hashes out a new deal with the International Monetary Fund that is believed to focus heavily on an energy supply crisis that has left parts of the country facing up to 15 hours of load-shedding a day.
At the same time, India’s West Bengal state and the northeastern state of Mizoram are recovering after a cyclone hit India and Bangladesh on Sunday, killing at least 65 people.
Bangladesh’s Meteorological Department said the cyclone was “one of longest in the country’s history,” blaming climate change for the shift.


UK police arrest 40 after pro-Palestinian rally

UK police arrest 40 after pro-Palestinian rally
Updated 29 May 2024
Follow

UK police arrest 40 after pro-Palestinian rally

UK police arrest 40 after pro-Palestinian rally
  • Individuals were arrested late on Tuesday for offenses including breaching public order conditions, obstructing roads and assaulting emergency workers

London: UK police on Wednesday said that 40 people had been arrested and three officers injured after protesters refused to disperse following a demonstration in London over Israel’s latest offensive in Gaza.
The British capital’s Metropolitan Police Service said the individuals were arrested late on Tuesday for offenses including breaching public order conditions, obstructing roads and assaulting emergency workers.
It said two officers sustained minor injuries after being assaulted while a third, who was struck by a bottle thrown from within the crowd, suffered a “serious facial injury.”
The Met, as the force is widely known, said an investigation was under way to identify who threw the bottle.
Police had approved plans for the early evening protest — organized by a coalition including the Palestine Solidarity Campaign — outside the gates of Downing Street in central London.
But it imposed conditions including that the rally end by 8:00pm.
Up to 10,000 people attended, and the “vast majority” had left by the required time, but a group of around 500 remained to continue protesting, according to police.
“Officers engaged extensively before making a number of arrests for failing to comply with conditions,” the Met said in a statement.
“As they moved in, some in the crowd resisted physically requiring officers to use force to extract those who had been arrested.”
Further arrests followed later in the evening after the remaining demonstrators launched a breakaway march and were eventually corralled outside a train station, the Met said.
Israel’s renewed military operations in Gaza, concentrated on Rafah, have sparked fresh protests in London and other cities around the world.
The British capital has seen frequent marches protesting Israel’s response to the deadly Hamas attack on its territory on October 7, stoking controversy and political debate over how they should be policed.
They have passed off largely peacefully, but police have made arrests at many for various offenses, including anti-Semitic chanting and banners, promoting a proscribed organization and assaults.


Singapore Airlines flight investigation finds sharp altitude drop caused injuries

Singapore Airlines flight investigation finds sharp altitude drop caused injuries
Updated 29 May 2024
Follow

Singapore Airlines flight investigation finds sharp altitude drop caused injuries

Singapore Airlines flight investigation finds sharp altitude drop caused injuries
  • One passenger died of a suspected heart attack and dozens were injured after Flight SQ321 encountered extreme turbulence

SINGAPORE: Preliminary findings of an investigation into a Singapore Airlines flight hit by severe turbulence last week showed a rapid change in gravitational force and a 54 meter altitude drop caused injuries, Singapore’s transport ministry said on Wednesday.
One passenger died of a suspected heart attack and dozens were injured after Singapore Airline Flight SQ321, flying from London to Singapore, encountered what the airline described as sudden, extreme turbulence while flying over Myanmar. The ministry said the investigation was ongoing.
The SQ321 London-Singapore flight on a Boeing 777-300ER plane carrying 211 passengers and 18 crew diverted to Bangkok for an emergency landing after the plane was buffeted by turbulence that flung passengers and crew around the cabin, slamming some into the ceiling.
“The aircraft experienced a rapid change in G (gravitational force) ... This likely resulted in the occupants who were not belted up to become airborne,” the ministry said in a statement, citing a report by the Transport Safety Investigation Bureau of Singapore.
“The vertical acceleration changed from negative 1.5G to positive 1.5G within 4 seconds. This likely resulted in the occupants who were airborne to fall back down.
“The rapid changes in G over the 4.6 seconds duration resulted in an altitude drop of 178 ft (54 m), from 37,362 ft to 37,184 ft. This sequence of events likely caused the injuries to the crew and passengers,” it said.
The report also said a pilot was heard calling out that the fasten seat belt sign had been switched on.