U.S. highlights irregularities in 2024 Pakistan general elections

Supporters of imprisoned Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Imran Khan on motorcycles chant slogans during a protest against the Pakistan Election Commission, in Lahore, Pakistan on March 10, 2024.

Supporters of imprisoned Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Imran Khan on motorcycles chant slogans during a protest against the Pakistan Election Commission, in Lahore, Pakistan on March 10, 2024.
| Photo Credit: AP

The U.S. has highlighted irregularities in the February 8 general elections in Pakistan and expressed the U.S. commitment to strengthening the cash-strapped country’s democratic institutions and cooperating to counter terrorist threats.

Assistant Secretary of State Donald Lu, the diplomat whose supposed warning to former Pakistan Ambassador to the U.S. Asad Majeed was the subject of a cipher (secret diplomatic message) sent by the envoy to Islamabad, will on Wednesday be a key witness before a Congressional panel that has called a hearing titled ‘Pakistan After the Elections: Examining the Future of Democracy in Pakistan and the U.S.-Pakistan Relationship’.

The same diplomatic communication was later used by jailed former prime minister Imran Khan to allege a U.S. conspiracy to oust his government in 2022.

The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) founder is on trial for mishandling the same confidential document.

Also Read | Pakistan’s election commission forms high-level committee to probe poll rigging allegations

In his written testimony uploaded on Tuesday, Mr. Lu raised several issues concerning the two countries and what lies ahead for U.S. policy in Pakistan.

He mentioned that the State Department had issued a clear statement a day after the general elections in Pakistan last month, noting undue restrictions on freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly.

The State Department condemned electoral violence and restrictions on human rights and fundamental freedoms, as well as attacks on media workers and restrictions on access to the internet and telecommunication services, he said.

It also expressed concern about allegations of interference in the electoral process and asked for claims of interference or fraud to be fully investigated, he said.

“We were particularly concerned about electoral abuses and violence that happened in the weeks leading up to the elections,” he stated.

“First, there were attacks against police, politicians, and political gatherings by terrorist groups. Second, many journalists, particularly female journalists, were harassed and abused by party supporters. And several political leaders were disadvantaged by the inability to register specific candidates and political parties,” he said.

Mr. Lu also said on the day of the election, an internationally respected local poll monitoring organisation said they were barred from observing vote tabulation in more than half of the constituencies across the country.

Also Read | Pakistan’s Foreign Office dismisses U.S. ‘directions’ on probing alleged election rigging

“And despite a high court instruction not to interrupt the internet service on election day, authorities shut down mobile data services, the principal means by which Pakistanis access social media and messaging applications,” he said.

However, the assistant secretary also identified positive elements in the Pakistani general elections and said: “Despite threats of violence, over 60 million Pakistanis voted, including over 21 million women. Voters elected 50% more women to parliament than they did in 2018. In addition to a record number of women candidates, there were record numbers of members of religious and ethnic minority groups and young people running for seats in parliament.”

Voters in Pakistan had a choice, he stated in the testimony.

“A range of political parties won seats in national and provincial assemblies. Three different political parties now lead Pakistan’s four provinces. More than 5,000 independent observers were in the field. Their organisation concluded that the conduct of the election was largely competitive and orderly while noting some irregularities in the compilation of results,” he said.

Declaring Pakistan an important partner, the senior official said the U.S. shares a commitment to strengthening the country’s democratic institutions, supporting the U.S.-Pakistan Green Alliance Framework, cooperating to counter terrorist threats from groups like Al-Qaeda and Daesh, and bolstering respect for human rights, including religious freedom.

Mr. Lu said Washington plays a critical role in promoting economic stability in Pakistan.

“We have been one of the most important investors in critical infrastructure over the 76 years of our partnership. For example, the U.S. Government is refurbishing the Mangla and Tarbela dams that provide electricity to tens of millions of Pakistanis.”

He said the U.S. support for Pakistan over the last many decades has been in the form of development grants, private sector investment and humanitarian assistance during periods of greatest need, including the recent catastrophic flooding.

“Unfortunately, Pakistan is facing mounting debt challenges after the past decade of elevated borrowing, including from the People’s Republic of China (PRC),” he said, warning that this year, nearly 70% of the federal government’s revenue is expected to go to payments to service this massive debt.

Pakistan needs economic reforms and private sector-led investments that will deliver economic growth for the Pakistani people and not dig their government deeper into debt, Donald Lu said in his testimony.

The allegations of vote rigging marred the February 8 elections in Pakistan.

Though more than 90 independent candidates backed by Mr. Khan’s PTI won the maximum number of seats in the National Assembly, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) led by former foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto struck a post-poll deal and formed a coalition government in the country.

Mr. Khan’s party says the new coalition government was formed by stealing its mandate.

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