Haleem Sheikh being led away by police and (right) facilitation centres set up by different parties in Malir on Tuesday.—Shakil Adil/Fahim Siddiqi/White Star
Haleem Sheikh being led away by police and (right) facilitation centres set up by different parties in Malir on Tuesday.—Shakil Adil/Fahim Siddiqi/White Star

KARACHI: As the Malir police arrested Leader of the Opposition in the Sindh Assembly Haleem Adil Sheikh in an old case, polling for the PS-88 by-election was marred by allegations of vote rigging, violence and intimidation as all contesting parties traded charges against each other.

While the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party blamed the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf for interference in the polling process and harassment of voters, not only the PTI but the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P) and Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) also accused the PPP of using state machinery and police to “rig” the election and harass its opponents.

Voting began peacefully in the morning in the constituency, which fell vacant after the death of PPP’s Ghulam Murtaza Baloch.

However, things started to heat up in the second half of the day when police detained Mr Sheikh near one of the polling stations and claimed that they acted on the directives of the Election Commission of Pakistan to stop the opposition leader and his armed guards from influencing the electoral process.

But, there was no statement from the ECP to countercheck the police claims and later it transpired that the police arrested Mr Sheikh in an old case and shifted him to the office of the Special Investigation Unit.

PTI, MQM-P, TLP accuse PPP of using govt machinery; PPP blames PTI for harassing voters

“Mr Sheikh has formally been arrested in an FIR lodged against him by the Memon Goth police on February 7,” said an official.

Parties trade allegations

The police action came an hour after PPP leaders approached the ECP with a written request stating that Mr Sheikh was harassing voters, polling staff and interfering in the electoral process.

Speaking at a press conference, PPP leader and Sindh Education Minister Saeed Ghani said it was the responsibility of the ECP to register a terrorism FIR against Mr Sheikh as he along with “40 to 50 armed terrorists was visiting every polling station and threatening people”.

In a video statement apparently released while he was in custody, the opposition leader blamed PPP workers for firing at his convoy in Malir.

“I am the leader of the opposition but my police security was withdrawn on the direct orders of Bilawal [Bhutto-Zardari] and [Asif Ali] Zardari,” he said. “I was left with no other option but to keep my personal guards. But still they tried to kill me. They fired shots on my vehicle. My guards responded and fired shots in the air to disperse the attackers. The PPP harassed our workers and we caught their workers red-handed while casting bogus votes.”

MQM-P leader Faisal Subzwari condemned the arrest of Mr Sheikh and termed it an attempt to influence the electoral process. He also levelled allegations of rigging in favour of the candidate of the ruling party in Sindh.

Similar allegations against the PPP were also levelled by TLP’s Kashif Shah.

Scene at polling camps

The constituency consists of mainly suburbs of Karachi in Malir which include Memon Goth, Haji Faqeer Mohammad Village, a few neighbourhoods of Malir Colony, Model Colony, Malir Cantt and a small part of Gulistan-i-Jauhar.

There may have been forks, knives, apples, screwdrivers, cranes, trains, padlocks, wickets, etc, competing in the PS-88 by-election, but it was only the ‘arrow’ and the ‘bat’ that were most in focus and the talk of the town.

The ‘kite’, meanwhile, seemed only to be there to hinder the vote banks of underdogs.

Yousuf Murtaza Baloch, the son of late Murtaza Baloch, was competing for the PPP from this constituency. His posters along with the red, black and green party flags were almost everywhere near polling stations in Khokhrapar, Model Colony, Memon Goth, etc. One could also not help but notice the rush of voters at the PPP facilitation camps.

“It is a matter of trust that you see so many people at our facilitation camp,” said Azam Durrani helping the voters find their booth numbers at one such facilitation centre in Khokhrapar.

Even in these times of coronavirus where one avoids crowds, the people were only heading to the PPP camp instead of spacing themselves out and approaching another party camp.

One couldn’t help but wonder if it was a matter of trust or sympathy?

“It is unfortunate that Murtaza Baloch is no longer with us. But there is his young son who [we] will support now,” said Ameer Lodhi, who was also there helping the voters. “We often saw young Yousuf Murtaza accompanying his father. The good in the father has to have rubbed off on the son too, not to mention his inheriting a good heart,” he added.

For Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), there was Jan Sher Junejo competing for PS-88. It was being said that if anyone was capable of turning this by-election into a real competition, it was the PTI candidate. But if the rush at facilitation camps is anything to go by, the PTI facilitation centres wore quite a vacant look.

“Look, we are here to help voters find their polling booths so it doesn’t matter which party facilitation centre they approach. The moment of truth is inside these booths when the stamp is used for the right candidate and we believe it to be Jan Sher Junejo,” said PTI’s Shujaat Hussain.

“What you are seeing at the PPP facilitation camps is just an illusion. They make it look like everyone is making a beeline for them by bringing in their own people to make the place look crowded. We don’t do those kinds of things. We believe in quietly doing our work, which speaks for itself,” said another PTI supporter Nafees Sheikh.

At Memon Goth, there seemed to be more vehicles, especially vans and pickups being brought in along with voters. An empty HiAce van decorated in PTI colours and pictures of their candidate seemed to be looking for voters to transport. This was also where one found a few posters of the TLP candidate Syed Kashif Ali Shah along with his electoral symbol, crane, and a picture of their late leader Khadim Rizvi.

Published in Dawn, February 17th, 2021

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