ISLAMABAD: Leader of the Opposition in the Senate Sherry Rehman questioned the grant of magisterial powers to the armed forces personnel, noting that the duplication of powers would lead to confusion and conflicts.

Taking part in a discussion on law and order and the political situation, she criticised the Punjab home minister for saying he would remove certain names from the Fourth Schedule, and demanded his resignation. She warned against allowing banned organisations to contest elections, saying 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 parliament.”

She observed 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]?”

PTI lawmaker regrets certain elements want confrontation between institutions; minister says security most important aspect of elections

Referring to threat alerts issued by the National Counter Terrorism Authority (Nacta), she said Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari was also a target. She demanded that Nacta provide the names of all leaders who are facing security threats.

Former Senate chairman and PPP stalwart Raza Rabbani lashed out at the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) for what he called was ‘criminal silence’ over pre-poll rigging.

He raised questions over the role of the armed forces in the polling process. “What is the reason for their deployment inside polling stations?” he asked. “The ECP should tell us why they eventually decided to deploy soldiers within polling stations.”

Drawing the Senate’s attention towards restrictions being placed on the media by disrupting the circulation of certain newspapers and instructions to television channels not to air certain programmes, he said this was a clear violation of Article 19 of the Constitution.

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.

“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 recent incidents in which Mr Bhutto-Zardari’s convoy was stopped at various points, as well as an incident of stone pelting at a meeting held by former premier Shahid Khaqan Abbasi.

“Was the ECP unable to see Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (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 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 were casting doubts over the transparency of the upcoming polls. He warned of dire consequences if the polls were engineered.

PML-N Senator Pervaiz Rashid criticised a recent statement made by Punjab caretaker Chief Minister Prof Hassan Askari predicting that the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) would gain more seats in the upcoming elections while the number of seats won by the PML-N would decline. Condemning Mr Askari’s statement, Mr Rashid said 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 number of seats won by the PML-N will decrease?” The former information minister demanded that Mr Askari resign for making such statements regarding the outcome of the polls.

Senator Sadia Abbasi of the PML-N also criticised the Punjab caretaker CM’s remarks, saying that his statement had bared his “agenda”.

The PML-N senators demanded that Mr Askari’s statement be sent to the ECP, and were told by the Senate chairman to submit a published report to the secretariat in this regard.

Mr Rashid also raised questions over the transparency of accountability in the run-up to the polls, saying that while PML-N candidates were being summoned by courts, PTI leaders were being granted exemptions. He also expressed his concern over the ECP’s clearance of candidates affiliated with extremist outfits.

Senator Mohsin Aziz of the PTI said his party wanted free and fair elections, but regretted that certain elements wanted confrontation between institutions. He regretted that institutions were being maligned to save the skin of an individual involved in loot and plunder. He called for accountability of everyone and said the army generals hiding in London and Australia should be held accountable for their wrongdoings. He said it had become a fashion to criticise the army and advised his political opponents to stop pursuing the agenda of Pakistan’s enemies.

Published in Dawn, July 22nd, 2018