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US, UK and EU express concerns over Pakistan's electoral process, urge probe into irregularities

The elections in Pakistan held on Thursday were marred by militant attacks and suspension of mobile phone services, resulting in at least 12 deaths. Despite that, Pakistan's Foreign Office insisted that the elections were held "peacefully and successfully".

Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee Washington Published on: February 10, 2024 16:35 IST
Pakistan, Pakistan elections, United States, European Union
Image Source : AP Supporters of Imran Khan protest against delay in elections

Washington: The United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union on Friday expressed concerns about Pakistan's elections after the vote was held on Friday amid allegations of rigging, militant violence and a country-wide shutdown on mobile and internet services. The trio urged a probe to look into alleged irregularities in the recently-held elections as the vote counting is underway.

The main battle was between former prime minister Nawaz Sharif's party and candidates backed by ex-prime minister Imran Khan. The US and EU mentioned allegations of interference, including arrests of activists, and added that claims of irregularities, interference and fraud should be fully investigated. This came after the US raised eyebrows over the imprisonment of Imran and his party being banned from the elections.

Imran believes the powerful military is behind a crackdown to hound his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) out of existence, while analysts and opponents say Nawaz is being backed by the generals. Despite such problems, Imran-backed candidates have sprung a major surprise by winning most of the seats in the National Assembly elections, leaving behind Nawaz's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N)

What did the West say?

The EU statement noted a "lack of a level playing field, opens new tab", attributing that to "the inability of some political actors to contest the elections" and to restrictions to freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and internet access. The US State Department said there were "undue restrictions, opens new tab" on freedoms of expressions and assembly while noting violence and attacks on media workers.

The US condemns 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, said State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller while expressing concern about allegations of interference in the electoral process.

Some US lawmakers such as Democratic Representatives Ro Khanna and Ilhan Omar also expressed concerns, with the former saying "the military is interfering and rigging the result". “Until yesterday Imran Khan was overwhelmingly winning in the popular election and looks like he had a landslide to return as prime minister. And the military basically has been raging, at least that's the allegation, rigging the election results to be interfering to prop up their military candidate,” Khanna alleged.

British foreign minister David Cameron's statement noted "serious concerns, opens new tab raised about the fairness and lack of inclusivity" of the elections. "The UK urges authorities in Pakistan to uphold fundamental human rights including free access to information, and the rule of law. This includes the right to a fair trial, through adherence to due process and an independent and transparent judicial system, free from interference," he said.

Furthermore, the Australian government said it was “regrettable” that Pakistanis were “restricted in their choice” of voting during the elections. "Australia supports a democratic, stable and prosperous Pakistan which upholds its commitments to democratic principles including human rights, media freedoms, freedom of expression, and freedom of association," read a statement by Australian High Commissioner to Pakistan Neil Hawkins.

Pakistan's response to comments

Pakistan's Foreign Office responded to the remarks made about the elections, saying it is “surprised by the negative tone of some” of the statements made by certain countries and organisations" and saying that it is an "undeniable fact" that Pakistan held elections peacefully and successfully, while dealing with serious security threats.

"Some statements are not even factual. There was no nationwide internet shutdown. Only mobile services were suspended for the day to avoid terrorist incidents on the polling day. The elections exercise has demonstrated that the concerns of many commentators were misplaced," said the Foreign Office in its statement.

Despite Pakistan's defence, the elections held on Thursday were marred by militant attacks and suspension of mobile phone services, with no indication of a clear leader many hours after voting ended. An "internet issue" was the reason behind the delay, said Zafar Iqbal, special secretary at the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). Despite the heightened security, nine people, including two children, were killed in bomb blasts, grenade attacks and shootings.

The internet shutdown was criticised by many, including the US, which said it was concerned about "steps that were taken to restrict freedom of expression, specifically around internet and cellphone use". United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Thursday expressed concern about violence in Pakistan and the suspension of mobile communications services on election day.

Chief Election Commissioner Sikandar Sultan Raja said the decision on mobile networks was made by "law and order agencies" following twin blasts in Balochistan that killed 30 on Wednesday.

Who's winning?

In a major victory for Imran, independent candidates that are mostly backed by his party are dominating the general elections held on Thursday, outshining his rival Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and forcing him to make preparations for a coalition government. Out of the 250 seats counted so far, PTI-backed independents have won 99 seats, while PML-N won 71.

After initially rebuffing the possibility of a coalition government, Nawaz Sharif gave a speech on Friday, claiming to be the single largest party and said he told his younger brother Shehbaz to reach out to rival parties for the formation of a coalition government. PML-N president Shehbaz Sharif and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) chairman Bilawal Bhutto agreed on a coalition government after tense negotiations.

The incarcerated former PM Imran also claimed victory in the elections and thanked the public for its overwhelming support, adding that the 'London plan' failed because of a massive turnout. "You have laid the foundation of real freedom by casting your votes yesterday [Thursday] and I congratulate you on the victory in the general elections 2024," he said, while claiming that the party-backed candidates will win 150 seats.

(with inputs from Reuters)

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