ISLAMABAD - The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has expressed grave concern over what it said a blatant, aggressive and unabashed attempts to manipulate the outcome of the upcoming elections.

In a press statement issued here on Monday, the HRCP said that polls were going to be held as scheduled and there was now ample ground to doubt their legitimacy – with alarming implications for Pakistan’s transition to an effective democracy.

The watchdog expressed serious reservations over the extraordinary powers given to security forces on the polling day. It said that deployment of around 350,000 security personnel outside and inside polling stations, and assigning magisterial powers to military functionaries has blurred the line between civilian and non-civilian responsibility for the electoral process.

Asking the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to ensure that voters are in no way intimated or influenced by the presence of such a large number of security personnel, the watchdog termed such measures unprecedented and micromanagement by an institution that should not be involved so closely in what was strictly a civilian mandate.

“The HRCP is deeply concerned that the political class is being selectively squeezed. This is apparent from reports that members of the PML-N are being pressured to switch political loyalties. Candidates are being asked to return their tickets, and that electoral opposition to two mainstream parties – the PML-N in Punjab and the PPP in Sindh – is being ‘manufactured’ in strategic areas,” it said.

“The HRCP reaffirms the public perception that all parties have not been given equal freedom to run their election campaigns. Candidates from parties such as the PML-N, the PPP and Awami Workers Party have reported being harassed by law enforcement and security personnel during their campaigns, their movement monitored or restricted without good reason, and their election banners removed en masse, again reportedly by security personnel,” it said, urging the ECP to monitor police treatment of different parties and ensure that all candidates are given a level-playing field.

“The HRCP is alarmed at the stealthy reappearance of banned outfits under other names and the fact that the state has conferred political legitimacy on them by allowing them to contest the elections. That their campaigns have consistently misused religion to peddle a dangerous and divisive rhetoric that is a cause for serious concern,” it said, demanding that the ECP revisit scrutiny process to determine why such candidates’ nomination papers were accepted without further investigation.

“The HRCP feels strongly that the political space ceded to banned outfits has emboldened militant groups. This is painfully clear from the carnage wrought in Peshawar and Mastung last week, which has claimed almost 175 lives in suicide attacks, including that of two political candidates, Haroon Bilour of the Awami National Party and Siraj Raisani of the Balochistan Awami Party. The HRCP demands urgent action to secure the right of political candidates to adequate security on the campaign trail.”

It further said “the HRCP is strongly concerned over the recent curbs on the print and broadcast media – specifically, the numerous instances in which journalists perceived as favouring the PML-N or PPP or deemed critical of the security establishment have been subject to censorship, intimidation, harassment and abduction”.

“The undeclared curbs to distribution in the case of Dawn and The News in cantonments, and earlier attempts to block the transmission of Geo TV are tantamount to denying people access to reports and analysis of electoral issues. Such pressures on the media serve to manipulate public opinion, forestall critical debate and leave powerful institutions unaccountable to the public,” it said.

Meanwhile, a delegation of senior HRCP office bearers met the chief election commissioner at the ECP earlier on Monday and conveyed the commission’s concerns. The CEC conceded that the ECP had received and attempted to resolve many complaints, but it could not take action on allegations of interference. He expressed the ECP’s resolve to address specific complaints as and when received.

The HRCP has appealed to all citizens to approach the ECP with the necessary supporting evidence in cases where they felt that any election rules and laws had been violated.