Pakistan dirtiest election with candidates allege widespread interference by army and intelligence services

Pakistan is heading for one of its dirtiest elections in many years, observers and political campaigners have warned, with candidates alleging widespread interference by the country’s powerful army.

With days to go until next Wednesday’s vote, members of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz said they had been targeted by members of the intelligence services, as tensions ran high between the party’s ruling Sharif family and the country’s influential military.

Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, the country’s former prime minister and a senior PML-N member, told the FT: “There has been coercion on members of our party to switch sides, with many of them being threatened with corruption cases.” Referring to the 2002 election, during which Pervez Musharraf, the military dictator, was accused of blocking his two main opponents, Mr Abbasi said:

“This is shaping up to be the worst election since 2002 — people have begun treating it as a joke.

”Hostility between the PML-N and the army has been high since last year, when Nawaz Sharif was ousted as prime minister and party leader on corruption charges that his allies say were orchestrated by the military.

The PML-N government remained in power until parliament was dissolved in May in preparation for the election under a caretaker government.

Last week Mr Sharif was jailed for 10 years in a judgment that could see him unable to campaign during the election.

Meanwhile many members of his party said they had been called by people they believed to be working for the army and urged to switch allegiances. Some said their movements had been monitored and occasionally obstructed, while others alleged they had been hounded through the courts.

Mr Abbasi’s own nomination papers were challenged in the Supreme Court, which eventually ruled in his favour.The army has denied political interference, with Major General Asif Ghafoor, its spokesman, saying it would play its role in a “non-political and impartial manner”.

The PML-N is engaged in a two-way fight with Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, the anti-corruption party led by Imran Khan, Pakistan’s former cricket captain. Mr Khan has denied allegations that he was being backed by the country’s powerful generals, and has condemned any harassment of election candidates.Presuming the vote goes ahead as planned, it will be only the second time Pakistan has made a transition from one civilian government to another.

But the security of the election process has been thrown into doubt by a string of attacks on election rallies, including one in Mastung that killed 149 people.Some accuse the army of not doing enough to provide security for political candidates, while others accuse it of outright harassment.

Concerns about the treatment of the PTI’s main opponents, including the Pakistan People’s Party and the Awami National Party, have prompted Pakistan’s human rights commission to issue a damning report into the election process.

The commission said this week it was “gravely concerned over what it sees as blatant, aggressive and unabashed attempts to manipulate the outcome of the upcoming elections”. It said it was also concerned by the army’s plan to put 370,000 troops on the streets on polling day, compared with just 70,000 at the previous general election in 2013.

Journalists said they were also coming under increased pressure to toe the army’s line, with those who failed to comply facing problems with distributing their news.

In March, cable television services in certain areas of the country began blocking the transmission of the television station Geo, while the English-language Dawn newspaper said its sales networks had been disrupted.Meanwhile election observers from international organisations said their visas and government accreditations had been delayed for weeks, giving them only a few days on the ground before polling day next Wednesday. “We have never had a situation like this in any of our 150-plus missions,” said Dmitra Ioannou, the deputy chief observer for the EU observation mission.

“Usually our long-term observers would spend five to six weeks on the ground. This time, because of all the delays with our paperwork, they will get just one to two weeks, if that.”

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Source: FT

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