ISLAMABAD/LAHORE: Both the ruling and the opposition parties on Saturday claimed victory and accused each other of foul play in Friday’s violent by-election on a National Assembly seat from Daska as the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) made public the “disappearance” of 20 presiding officers along with polling bags, late night attempts made by it to trace them and the “weakness” shown by the provincial government functionaries in tracing them.

The ECP through its unusual statement came on record to voice the fear that the results provided by the “missing” presiding officers after a delay of at least six hours had been compromised. It put on hold the announcement of unconfirmed and unofficial results of the constituency NA-75 Sialkot.

The commission said the results were received after an inordinate delay and that several attempts were made to contact the presiding officers, but to no avail.

Meanwhile, the opposition parties termed the ECP’s statement a “charge-sheet” against the Punjab government and urged the commission to take action against Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar and Prime Minister Imran Khan over the “kidnapping” of its officials and for creating violence in the constituency that resulted in two deaths.

On the other hand, the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf claimed that it had won the Daska seat, and accused the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) of making the by-poll controversial through a “poisonous propaganda” against the provincial government and the administration.

Says 20 presiding officers went ‘missing’ with polling bags; opposition terms commission’s statement ‘charge-sheet’ against Punjab govt; Maryam demands fresh polls in Daska; Shibli says results ‘received by our polling agents’ suggest PTI won by over 7,000 votes

The ECP in its statement said Chief Election Commissioner Sikandar Sultan Raja tried to contact the inspector general of Punjab police and the relevant commissioner and deputy commissioner on receiving information from the district returning officer (DRO) and the returning officer (RO) about the “missing” presiding officers, but failed to do so.

The Punjab chief secretary, it said, was finally contacted at around 3am and he gave an assurance that the “missing” officials would be traced. However, later the chief secretary made himself unavailable too.

The “missing” officers finally came with polling bags at 6am on Saturday and the DRO and the RO reported that the results of 20 polling stations were suspected to have been changed and it was not possible to release the final result of the constituency, the ECP said.

It said the DRO had been directed to conduct an inquiry into the incident and identify those responsible and send the report directly to commission. In the meantime, the ECP officials have been asked not to announce the initial results.

The ECP said there appeared to be “weakness” on part of the administration and law enforcement agencies in the whole episode.

A senior official of the ECP, when contacted, said all characters “behind the attempt to change the results” would be identified and taken to task. Answering a question, he said the ECP might order re-polling at all polling stations from where the presiding officers had gone missing.

Addressing a news conference in Lahore, PML-N vice-president Maryam Nawaz asked the ECP to proceed against the Punjab chief minister and the prime minister for “creating violence” and killings in the by-election.

She said the ECP, through a press release, had accepted, rather “charge sheeted” the Punjab government for kidnapping of its officers, stealing votes and failure of the administration and police.

“Why not proceed against them as well on the same charges?” she asked.

Ms Nawaz alleged that “stealing” the by-elections both in Wazirabad and Daska was a planned conspiracy, which was executed with precision. As a first step, violence was stirred to scare the PML-N voters, and it resulted in the reprehensible act of two deaths.

Equipped with relevant video clips, she said when the people refused to get terrorised by aerial firing and the killings, the next phase of the conspiracy was executed: the voting process was slowed down and even stopped for hours at certain places. She said as the second phase failed, polling bags were “stolen.”

Ms Nawaz alleged that the PML-N workers caught presiding officers red-handed and video clips went viral, and it all happened in the presence of Rangers.

“When the vigilant PML-N workers and voters foiled even bag theft, the final act rolled out: kidnapping officials of the election commission along with votes,” she said.

“Where was the Punjab government when the ECP launched a search operation for its 20 officers? Where was the Punjab police? Where was the IG police? Where was the chief secretary, who was contacted but made himself “unavailable” after receiving a call from the ECP? On top of it, who kidnapped 20 presiding officers? All these questions beg answers. The ECP should find them,” she said.

“In 337 polling stations, where polling was held and results shared, the turnout was 30 to 35 per cent. However, in the 20 polling stations (from where the presiding officers went missing), it shot up to 85pc to 90pc, verifying the PML-N’s claim that all was done to stuff boxes with fake votes”, she added.

“It is heartening to see the ECP trying to find its legal and constitutional feet. … the PML-N will not accept anything less than a fresh election in Daska.”

Parliamentary leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party in the Senate Sherry Rehman in a statement also termed the ECP’s statement a charge-sheet against the Punjab government, asking: “Where was the polling staff for the whole night?”

PPP Senator Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar accused the Punjab government of abducting the presiding officers and called for registration of cases against those responsible.

Meanwhile, federal Minister for Information Shibli Faraz in a tweet said that the results received “by our polling agents in NA-75 Daska suggest that we have won the election by over 7,000 votes -- an election we had lost by over 30,000 in the last polls”.

Later, in a statement, he said on one hand, Ms Nawaz was praising the ECP and on the other hand, she was crying over rigging.

“How can the rigging be managed without the support of the ECP or local administration and police?” he questioned.

Published in Dawn, February 21st, 2021

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