Pakistan Swears In New Parliament After Marred Elections

Islamabad — Pakistan’s National Assembly swore in newly elected members Thursday amid protests by allies of jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan, who say the general elections were marred by widespread rigging. 

The polls for the 336-seat lower house of parliament and four provincial assemblies occurred on February 8 amid hopes they would lead to political and economic stability in Pakistan, a country of about 241 million people. 

The outgoing National Assembly speaker, Raja Pervez Ashraf, administered the oath to incoming lawmakers. He announced that elections for his successor would take place on Friday morning and adjourned the session until then. 

In the months preceding the vote, Khan was sentenced to prison terms of 10 years, 14 years, and seven years on disputed charges of leaking state secrets while in office, corruption, and fraudulent marriage. 

The convictions came amid a military-backed crackdown on Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or PTI party. Authorities arrested hundreds of its leaders, candidates, and supporters, including women, with many of them allegedly tortured while in custody. 

The campaign eventually forced PTI-nominated candidates to run as independents and barred them from using their party’s iconic cricket bat symbol on the ballot. Khan’s supporters defied the crackdown and won more seats than any other party. The PTI-backed independents also swept the polls in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

But the rival Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) of former prime minister Shehbaz Sharif is set to form a minority coalition government in Islamabad together with the Pakistan People’s Party , paving the way for him to take office again.

Doubts about the results’ credibility have triggered calls for a thorough investigation by both domestic critics and foreign countries, including the United States.

Several Pakistani political groups and independent election watchdogs have declared their support for the PTI’s claims that they were on the path to a sweeping victory but were prevented from doing so due to alleged electoral fraud that favored army-backed rival parties, including Sharif’s PML-N.

While addressing the newly elected assembly after being sworn in, the PTI’s acting chief, Gohar Ali Khan, detailed the crackdown his party faced in the run-up to the vote.

“Our symbol was taken away, our leader was convicted in three cases, but the nation has shown that the country’s most popular leader is the one and only Imran Khan,” he stated. He reiterated the PTI assertions that the PML-N and PPP legislators took control of parliament on a “stolen mandate,” and that they did not have the public trust.

On Wednesday, a group of 31 U.S. Congress members sent a letter to President Joe Biden, expressing concerns about electoral fraud in the recent parliamentary elections.

“Given the strong evidence of pre- and post-poll rigging, we urge you to wait until a thorough, transparent, and credible investigation has been conducted before recognizing a new Pakistani government,” the letter stated. “Without taking this necessary step, you risk enabling anti-democratic behavior by Pakistani authorities and could undermine the democratic will of the Pakistani people.”

The PTI also wrote to the International Monetary Fund on behalf of Khan this week, asking that lending to Islamabad be tied to an independent audit of the elections. The letter stated that the polls cost Pakistan $180 million, but they “were subjected to widespread intervention and fraud in the counting of votes and compilation of results.” 

The document read that an “audit of at least 30% of the national and provincial assemblies’ seats should be ensured.”

The letter drew criticism of the PTI from the PML-N and other rival parties that claimed it was an attempt to damage an already-fragile national economy.

Last summer, Pakistan secured a much-needed $3 billion bailout from the IMF. The program is due to expire in April, with analysts saying the country needs a new financial package to address record inflation, stabilize local currency, and shore up its foreign exchange reserves.

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