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Official Resigns, Admits Tampering in Pakistan's Controversy-Marred Vote

Supporters of former prime minister Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party protest against the alleged skewing in Pakistan's national election results, in Peshawar, Feb. 17, 2024.
Supporters of former prime minister Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party protest against the alleged skewing in Pakistan's national election results, in Peshawar, Feb. 17, 2024.

A high-ranking Pakistan government officer stepped down Saturday after admitting his involvement in manipulating the results of last week's National Assembly elections, which were marred by accusations of massive electoral fraud and returned no clear winner.
Liaqat Ali Chatha, the commissioner of the Rawalpindi region that comprises five districts, made the shocking revelation amid nationwide protests led by jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or PTI, and other political parties.

The PTI claims that the February 8 polls for the lower house of parliament were tampered with to block an outright PTI victory and help candidates fielded by the military-backed rival Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz or PML-N party.

"I am taking responsibility for all the wrongdoing I have committed during this election," Chatha told a hurriedly convened news conference in his Rawalpindi office.

"We put fake stamps on ballot papers, turning losers into winners and reversing margins of 70,000 votes at times across 13 National Assembly seats," he added, but not providing evidence to support his claims.

"I apologize to all my returning officers who were working under my supervision and crying when I pushed them to commit a wrongful act against their free will," Chatha said.

The senior bureaucrat claimed that he had even contemplated suicide because his wrongful act of "stabbing the country in its back" did not let him sleep over the past week.

Election commission rejects allegations

The rigging allegations stemmed from an unprecedented nationwide suspension of mobile phone and internet services shortly before polling started on election day. The vote count took nearly three days to conclude, fueling doubts about the credibility of the electoral process.

Chatha accused Pakistan's chief election commissioner and the Supreme Court chief justice of involvement in manipulating the elections. He sought punishment for all those responsible for the electoral fraud, including himself. The officer was later taken into police custody for charges not known immediately.

The election commission swiftly rejected Chatha's allegations. It said in a statement that the commission had not instructed him to "change of election results" and promised to launch an investigation into the controversy.

Chief Justice Qazi Faez Isa denied the charges, telling reporters outside the Supreme Court in Islamabad that baseless allegations hold no weight without evidence.

Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar, the interim Pakistani prime minister, urged political parties and individuals Saturday to seek legal redress through the available channels for complaints regarding electoral irregularities. He defended the elections as "a step towards promoting democracy" in the nuclear-armed country of about 241 million people.

"Pakistan's legislative, judicial, and executive branches are resilient and stand ready to deliver impartial justice to all," said the prime minister. "While peaceful protest and assembly are fundamental rights, any form of agitation, violence, or incitement for vigilantism will not be condoned, and the law would take its course without hesitation."

A group of independent candidates, most of them loyal to Khan, won the highest number of seats, 101, in the 266-seat legislative assembly, while the PML-N of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif secured 75 seats, with neither getting enough for a simple majority.

The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) of former foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari won 54 seats, and the rest were taken by smaller regional parties.

Khan's PTI defied a monthslong state crackdown in the lead-up to the February 8 polls, shattering campaigning and arresting scores of its leaders.

The PTI nominees were compelled to contest the election as independent candidates. That was because the Supreme Court validated the election commission's controversial decision to take away the party's cricket bat symbol, which had been an integral part of its identity.

The decision was made just weeks before the election, and it significantly impacted the party's chances of winning in a country with high illiteracy rates and where symbols on the ballot papers play a crucial role in helping voters identify their preferred candidates. Despite the clampdown, PTI-backed candidates won most seats to the surprise of many observers.

Salman Akram Raja, one of the prominent national-level PTI candidates allegedly forced to lose, said his party was determined to press ahead with its legal and street agitation to get back their seats.

"If the state officials responsible for safeguarding the election can be won over and can do what they did, then every election to be carried out in Pakistan becomes a farce," Raja told a news conference in Islamabad on Friday.

"That is why we are standing up, and we are saying this farce must be reversed," he said, denouncing the alleged vote fraud as a wholesale assault on democracy in Pakistan.

Commission seeks independent audit

On Saturday, the leading nongovernmental Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, or HRCP, released its investigative report on the elections, demanding an independent audit into irregularities and rigging allegations.

The HRCP said its election observers had conducted "spot checks" in more than 50 constituencies and noted that "the countrywide internet and cellular services shutdown on polling day and arbitrary changes in polling information compromised voters' access to polling stations."

The watchdog said the post-polling process was "clearly unsatisfactory," and the "protracted delay in the announcement of election results" was particularly a cause of concern.

"The integrity of the 2024 elections was compromised, not only by lack of competence on the part of the ECP (Election Commission of Pakistan) but also by constant pressure from extra-democratic quarters and questionable decisions by the caretaker government," said the HRCP, referring to the country's powerful military.