Former Senate chairman and PPP stalwart Raza Rabbani on Saturday thundered at the Election Commission of Pakistan's (ECP) "criminal silence" over perceived irregularities in the run-up to the polls, warning of "dire consequences" for the government if the elections are "engineered".
Senator Rabbani, while addressing the Upper House, raised questions over the role of the armed forces in the polling process, saying that the ECP had not defined a code of conduct or terms of reference to govern the deployment of the army on polling day.
"At first, the ECP kept saying that soldiers would be deployed outside polling stations. Now it's saying they will be also be deployed inside. What is the reason for their being stationed inside?" he asked. "The ECP should tell us why they eventually decided to deploy soldiers within polling stations. And if they will be inside, what will their function be?" he wondered.
He drew the Senate's attention towards restrictions being placed on the media by disruptions to the circulation of certain newspapers and instructions to television channels not to air certain programmes.
Senator Rabbani also raised questions over the role of banned groups in the polls.
"Under what law has the ECP permitted banned groups to contest elections?" he asked. "Under what law have Fourth Schedulers been allowed to contest elections?"
Rabbani criticised Punjab's interim home minister's earlier statement that he would "personally monitor" the process of removing the name of those who have been "wrongly included" in the Fourth Schedule.
"Is the ECP sleeping?" he asked, wondering if the ECP had failed to notice that "two major parties of the country are being targeted". He referred to stoppage of Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari's convoy at various points, as well as an incident of stone pelting at a meeting held by former premier and PML-N leader Shahid Khaqan Abbasi.
"Was the ECP unable to see PML-N leaders being arrested?" he asked, referring to a crackdown on members of the political party in various parts of Punjab in the days leading up to convicted former PM Nawaz Sharif's return to the country last week. "Did the ECP question the government about this?" he wondered.
The former Senate chairman also criticised the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) for summoning election candidates and interrupting their campaigns.
"Candidates are being told to abandon their election campaigns and come sit themselves down at the National Accountability Bureau's office," he said.
"This is criminal silence on the part of the ECP... Current events make it very clear that the caretaker government is biased. The ECP has remained silent, as though it is being told something from somewhere else," he claimed. "The caretaker government is saying one thing, and the ECP, another," he said, adding that these developments are casting doubts over the transparency of the upcoming polls.
Rabbani lambasted both the ECP and the caretaker government, saying they had "failed to fulfil their constitutional responsibilities"
"How is this leading to free and fair elections?" he asked, adding that "if the elections are being engineered, there will be dire consequences."
"How will the elections be free and fair in this environment?" he asked. "The people of Pakistan want answers to these questions."
'Mainstreaming extremist parties'
Leader of the Opposition in the Senate Sherry Rehman also criticised the Punjab home minister's for saying that he would remove certain names from the Fourth Schedule, and demanded his resignation.
She warned against allowing banned organisations to contest elections, saying that it would bring extremist elements into the "mainstream".
"Will we have to apologise for being open-minded?" she asked. "We won't be able to breathe if these people [extremist elements] enter the Parliament."
She claimed that divisions were being created in Pakistan by mainstreaming extremist parties.
"We have paid a huge price in the war against terrorism," she said. "What explanation will we give to the world if women and non-Muslims start being targeted [in the country]?"
She also directed the Senate's attention towards the threat alerts issued by the National Counter Terrorism Authority (Nacta).
"According to Nacta's report, political leaders are facing threats," she said, adding that the PPP chairman was also a target. She demanded that Nacta provides the names of all leaders that were facing security threats.
The PPP leader also rejected rumours that her party was supporting former military dictator Ziaul Haq's son.
"Ziaul Haq is the murderer of [Zulfiqar Ali] Bhutto," she declared. "There has been no political or electoral alliance with his party."
Rashid lashes out at Punjab CM
PML-N Senator Pervaiz Rashid criticised a recent statement made by Punjab caretaker Chief Minister Prof Hassan Askari ─ published by Indian news website Firstpost ─ where he predicted that the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) would gain more seats in the upcoming elections while the number of seats won by PML-N will decline.
However, Askari had stopped short of predicting which party will win the elections.
"One thing is clear. that PTI seats will increase and PML-N's seats will decrease, but by how many, we can't say at this stage," Askari was quoted as saying.
Condemning Askari's statement, Rashid said that as caretaker chief minister, it was not "his place to make predictions about the results of the upcoming elections".
"Who is he to say that the PTI will not form a government? And who is he to say that the number of seats won by the PML-N will decrease?"
The former information minister demanded that Askari resigns for making such statements regarding the outcome of the polls.
Askari's statement was also condemned by Sadia Abbasi, another PML-N Senator, who claimed that the statement had laid bare the "agenda" of the interim chief minister.
The PML-N senators demanded that Askari's statement be sent to the ECP and were directed by the Senate chairman to submit the published report to the secretariat.
'Non-level playing field'
Rashid also raised questions over the transparency of accountability in the run-up to the polls, saying that while PML-N candidates are being summoned by courts, PTI leaders are being granted exemption.
"Yesterday, NAB's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa chapter and an Anti-Terrorism Court granted an exemption to PTI Chairman Imran Khan," he said.
"Meanwhile, the verdict of a case in which PML-N leader Hanif Abbasi has been named will be announced today. I want to ask that if Imran Khan can be granted an exemption, why can't Hanif Abbasi be granted one as well?"
Hanif Abbasi, who is contesting from the NA-60 constituency in Rawalpindi, is named in an ephedrine quota case, the verdict of which is expected today.
He demanded that the Senate summons the ECP and NAB chairmen and ask them why some [candidates] were being treated like ladlay (favourites) while others were being treated like soteley (step children).
PML-N has repeatedly accused state institutions of favouring the PTI over other political parties.
'Terrorists being brought into Parliament'
Rashid also expressed his concern over ECP's clearance of candidates affiliated with extremist outfits, saying that while "terrorists were being brought inside the parliament", parliamentarians were being driven out and were being put in jail.
"Right now we are on the grey list," he said, reminding the Senate of the Financial Action Task Force's (FATF) decision last month to place Pakistan on its so-called 'grey list' for money laundering and terror financing. "What will we gain for Pakistan from the world?"
Situation in Balochistan
National Party Senator Ashok Kumar told the Senate that internet access in some areas of Balochistan had been cut off, disrupting communication in the province.
"We have never seen elections being held in this manner," he claimed. "Everyone knows what kind of elections will take place in Balochistan."
He further said that "if election results had already been decided", elected politicians should "be told to go home".
Following Kumar's complaint, Senate Chairman Sadiq Sanjrani ordered the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority to restore internet services in Balochistan.
Military clarifies its ‘constitutional’ position
The military’s spokesperson on Saturday again clarified that the ECP has “requisitioned armed forces under Article 220 and 245 of the Constitution to assist them in conduct of elections”.
Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor tweeted that that armed forces “shall undertake this mandated duty enabling people of Pakistan to freely exercise their democratic right in safe and secure environment”.
ECP dispatches ballot papers across Pakistan
ECP secretary Babar Yaqoob on Saturday announced that the commission has completed printing and delivery of ballot papers across the country.
There were a few complaints regarding the unavailability of election material which have been resolved, Yaqoob said.
Besides, Senate Standing Committee on Interior has asked ECP to ensure the installation of CCTV cameras at all polling stations for ensuring proper monitoring and security of the voting process.
In the report presented before the Upper House by committee chairman Rehman Malik, it recommended ensuring foolproof security to avoid any terrorist incident.
The committee also directed the information ministry including Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority to ensure launching a campaign on PTV, private TV channels, and electronic and print media for creating awareness in public to use their right of franchise.