‘Vote and shut up!’ Pakistani voters told amid rigging claims

 Eman El-Shenawi – Al Arabiya

As Pakistan underwent a whirlwind election day on Saturday, voters reeling from the outcome have revealed they were told to keep there “mouth shut” when they alleged vote rigging.

On Saturday night, the official results carried Pakistan Muslim League’s Nawaz Sharif to power, building up enough momentum to avoid having to form a coalition with his main rivals, former cricketer Imran Khan’s Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).

Sharif, so far winning 127 of the 272 National Assembly seats that were contested, celebrated with crowds of supporters as he gave his jubilant speech on Saturday night.

But lurking behind the shadows were boycotting parties and voters who had hoped patronage-based parties would end after years of corruption and misrule.

Online groups on Sunday launched rallies to demand “fair re-elections. (Courtesy: Facebook)

Rida Naqvi, a polling agent in Lahore on Saturday who was responsible for keeping tabs on voters and the ballot box, was angered by “extreme disorder,” she witnessed while at work.

“I saw votes being put into the ballot boxes without having signatures on them,” she told Al Arabiya on Sunday.

“When I went to complain, I was told to keep my mouth shut [by security officers] because this was my first time doing this duty and they had been here for years.

“I wanted to tell them ‘no doubt you have been here for years, which is exactly why we never had fair elections!’”

Naqvi said she has since attempted to complain to the media, European observers monitoring the polls and presiding Pakistani officers.

“But they all just nodded and kept quiet,” she said.

Murmurings on Saturday cast early doubts on the validity of the vote when the leader of the governing Pakistan People’s Party, Taj Haider, alleged rigging in some constituencies, among them in Sindh province and its capital, Karachi.

Meanwhile, leaders of one of Pakistan’s largest and most liberal parties, the Sindh-based Mutahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), told reporters that they would boycott the elections over allegations of rigging, according to CNN.

The Sunni Ittehad Council and Jamaat e Islami parties also announced a boycott, Pakistan’s Geo TV reported on election day.

At one point during the voting, Pakistan’s election commission ordered a re-vote in more than 30 polling stations in a Karachi constituency over allegations of ballot stuffing, a spokesman said.

It was a Karachi constituency controlled by MQM, the group which later announced its boycott. Imran Khan, meanwhile, also accused the MQM of ballot stuffing in Karachi, according to AFP. But the movement was quick to deny the accusations.

In reference to allegations of vote-rigging made by the members of his party, Khan said in televised remarks on Sunday: “God willing, we will issue a white paper.”

One Karachi voter pointed out that city quickly became the focus for allegations of fraud.

“The elections held in Pakistan were total scam; rigging was the usual way of work for the polling stations in the whole of Sindh and Punjab, especially Karachi,” Shujaat Haider told Al Arabiya.

“Polling stations were hijacked by ‘unidentified’ men and where they weren’t, the presiding officers did their part,” Haider added, in reference to poll officials taking part in the alleged corruption.

The Karachi resident said that in one of the city’s polling station, NA 250, a presiding officer did not turn up. The officer was supposed to preside over two stations.

“When we [Haider and other residents] asked why there was no officer, we were told he had gotten ‘upset’ over something and will not be coming and to stop asking questions. So they sent 1400 registered voters home.”

After complaints that polling stations opened late, or hadn’t been operating at all, voting was extended by three hours in seven Karachi constituencies, according to AFP news agency.

‘Change has come’

Haider said he was angered by the disorder and rigging attempts, but the large voter turnout still allowed him and other Pakistanis to feel the change.

“Even though I did not support the party that has won the elections, we must acknowledge the fact that the change has come.”

“Scores of people lined up for hours and hours to practice their democratic right and play their part in making change happen,” Haider added.

Online groups on Sunday launched rallies to demand “fair re-elections.” On Facebook, one event titled “Peaceful Rally in Support of FAIR Re-elections” was arranging for groups to meet at a specified area in Karachi at 5.30 p.m. (local time).

A rally in Lahore against “unfair elections and rigging” was also set to be held at 4.30 p.m. on Sunday, according to PTI supporters spreading the word through social media websites.

Similar rallies are expected to be organized across Pakistan on Sunday, and will mostly be held by Khan’s PTI supporters, disappointed with the outcome.

But for Sharif’s supporters, brushing off rigging allegations appears to be the popular response, with the frontrunner himself not responding to the claims.

“These allegations are fake,” Lahore-based filmmaker, and self-professed Sharif supporter, Awais Ahmad told Al Arabiya.

“Sharif has a strong political grassroots support, while Khan has all the youngsters rallying for him and perceive him to be a national hero.

“It’s easy for them to say the votes were rigged without having official evidence,” he added.

(Farwa Rizwan contributed to this article)

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