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ISLAMABAD: Announ­cing the largest troops’ deployment for the general elections in the country’s history, the army on Tuesday broke its silence on the allegations about military and intelligence agencies trying to influence the upcoming polls.

The army, moreover, pledged to remain neutral in the voting process, but asked voters to exercise prudence while electing their representatives for the national and provincial legislatures.

“What you sow on Election Day, you will reap over the next five years. You have to sow and you have to reap. The armed forces do not benefit or lose from it,” military spokesman Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor said at a media briefing and vowed on behalf of the troops to perform the role assigned to them in an “apolitical and neutral” manner.

The allegations of interference in elections have swirled around the military since the start of the year when the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz government in Balochistan was suddenly removed through a no-confidence vote. The accusations grew with the passage of time, especially after the Senate chairman’s election and politicians used various political metaphors to describe the alleged influence. PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif came up with Khalai Makhlooq (aliens) allegory.

In London media talk, Nawaz accuses senior intelligence officer of influencing election process

The military has always rejected these allegations, but never talked about them as explicitly as its spokesman did at his election deployment presser. Even on that occasion he insisted that the army did not respond to the provocations by the politicians and would not particularly do so in the days leading up to the elections.

“Some elements are trying to distract us and drag us into controversies, but we have learnt; we have evolved. We have gone thick-skinned. We have tolerated things that we would not have during normal times,” Maj Gen Ghafoor maintained, adding that the army needed to remain focused on its job.

Rejecting the Khalai Makhlooq epithet, he said: “The army is not into politics. We are God’s creatures and serving the people of this country. We know what we are.”

He went on to dismiss the allegations of the election process being engineered. “At the end of the day it would be the voters, who are going to decide. Neither can 106 million voters be manipulated nor can anyone order 0.37 million troops to do something wrong,” he said.

The army spokesman defended Inter-Services Intelligence’s Maj Gen Faiz Hamid, who is leading the counter-intelligence directorate and is often criticised by the PML-N for allegedly influencing the politicians. He regretted that his organisation’s role in fighting terrorism was not acknowledged. “If there is any truth in these allegations it too pales in comparison to what is being done in fight against terrorism and for internal security by ISI and Gen Faiz’s division in particular.”

Apparently in reference to movement of a large number of electables from the parties believed to be on the wrong side of the establishment to those that are seen by some as the favoured ones, he said it was normal for politicians to switch parties before elections if they were not comfortable with their previous affiliation. Such a movement was part of the democratic process, he added.

Hours after Maj Gen Ghafoor’s presser, Nawaz Sharif, while talking to the media in London, renewed his allegations about Gen Faiz. He said Gen Faiz and his team were fully behind the desertions from the PML-N. He regretted that the situation had come to a point where the military spokesman, instead of speaking about military affairs, was compelled to give clarifications about political matters. Mr Sharif alleged that the entire machinery was being used to target just his party and its members were being forced to join other parties like the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf and, in some cases, contest the elections as independents with ‘jeep’ as election symbol.

Maj Gen Ghafoor also spoke about the independent candidates contesting under the common symbol of ‘jeep’ and quipped “this jeep is not ours”. Neither the army nor the ISI had anything to do with allotment of symbols, he added.

About a letter sent by an army officer calling members of the judiciary for a coordination meeting, which was highlighted both by mainstream and social media, the ISPR director general acknowledged that it was a mistake that had already been rectified. “It was an oversight that an officer sent letters to members of the judiciary as well. We have acknowledged that it was an act of omission.”

Talking about the harassment allegations by a PML-N candidate from Multan Iqbal Siraj against intelligence officials, which were later withdrawn by the accuser, Maj Gen Ghafoor explained that there was over a year-long complaint against Mr Siraj that was being pursued by the agriculture department. Intelligence agencies, he said, did inform government departments in such cases, but the ISI was not involved in that incident. Further playing down the allegations, he said there were hardly any elections that were not preceded by such things.

About the conviction of retired Capt Muhammad Safdar, the son-in-law of Nawaz Sharif, in a corruption case, he said the army regulations regarding conviction of retired officers would take effect once the conviction became final.

Banned organisations

Responding to a question about the banned organisations taking part in the elections under new names and their leaders using other platforms to contest, the military spokesman said that “armed forces have no role to play in deciding the eligibility of the candidates”.

A petition in the Election Commission of Pakistan has challenged Rah-i-Haq’s participation in the elections being a front of the banned Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ). The group has fielded 42 candidates. The petition also pointed out that two other ASWJ leaders were running as independents. After an initial hearing, the ECP adjourned the case till Aug 16.

Besides the ASWJ, the candidates openly claiming affiliation with the Milli Muslim League, which was refused registration for being a front of the banned Jamaatud Dawa and Lashkar-e-Taiba, are also running as either independents or under the banner of a previously unknown entity Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek.

Maj Gen Ghafoor said: “The ECP has to decide if someone cannot participate in elections. If they have been allowed then it must be under some law.” He, however, said that “if any violation has been committed then every Pakistani has the right to go and object to it not only in ECP, but also other courts”.

Deployment plan

The army announced that it would deploy 371,388 troops at 85,000 polling stations for the elections slated to be held on July 25. This would be the largest deployment for any election in the country’s history. The only comparable deployment was done in the 1997 polls when 192,000 soldiers were deployed for 35,000 polling stations.

The troops-to-polling station ratio in 1997 was 5.5 soldiers for every station. This time that ratio is 4.37 soldiers for each polling station. Interestingly, this ratio for the polls held when the country was worst hit by terrorism was as low as 1.65 (2008) and 1.06 (2013) soldiers for each polling station.

This year, as per the security plan, two soldiers will be deployed inside the polling stations, while another two will guard outside the 20,831 polling stations designated as sensitive. For other stations, Maj Gen Ghafoor said, the configuration could vary depending on the requirement.

The troops are also guarding the three printing presses where ballot papers and other election stationery are being printed. Moreover, the soldiers will provide security during the transportation of election material to returning officers and subsequently to the polling station and back.

Besides the army, 8,000 troops will be contributed by the Pakistan Air Force and Navy. Additionally, 134, 894 reservists are also being called for duty, the military spokesman said.

The military personnel, while performing election-related duties, will be guided by a ‘code of conduct’ prepared for them by the ECP.

Maj Gen Ghafoor, while explaining the armed forces’ role, said they had been asked to “support Election Commission in conduct of elections in a free, fair and transparent manner”.

Conduct of elections, he underscored, was ECP’s responsibility, whereas the armed forces would facilitate in providing a conducive and secure environment.

Journalists on the occasion were also shown a training video prepared for the troops assigned for election duties.

Published in Dawn, July 11th, 2018