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ISLAMABAD: Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) Thursday announced to hold re-polling in the entire National Assembly constituency NA-75 Sialkot-IV (Daska) on the coming March 18, declaring the result of by-election held February 19 as null and void, summoning Chief Secretary and Inspector General Police (IGP) Punjab on March 4, ordering removal of Commissioner and Regional Police Officer Gujranwala and suspension of other senior district administration and police officers appointed in district Sialkot and its tehsil Daska.

A five-member full bench of ECP comprising of Chief Election Commissioner Sikandar Sultan Raja and all the four ECP Members; Justice Altaf Ibrahim Qureshi (Punjab), Shah Muhammad Jatoi (Sindh), former Justice Irshad Qaiser (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) and Nisar Ahmed Durrani (Balochistan) resumed hearing of the case petitioned by Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) candidate for NA-75 by-poll, Nosheen Iftikhar, who accused government machinery of ‘massive rigging’ in the by-poll.

Advocate Salman Akram Raja represented Noreen in the case. Ali Asjad Malhi from Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) replaced his Counsel Advocate Ali Bukhari with Barrister Ali Zafar in the case.

Giving his arguments, Salman Raja said, the government appointed the Sub Divisional Police Officer (SDPO) of its choice in Daska despite ban on transfers and postings imposed by ECP due to by-election. “The extent of foul play on part of government is evident from the fact that when ECP took notice of violation of its Code of Conduct and ordered removal of Zulfiqar Virk (SDPO), the government never replaced him and falsely claimed that Zulfiqar Virk was replaced with Zulfiqar Ali. Interestingly, Zulfiqar Virk and Zulfiqar Ali are two names of one person,” he said.

This caught CEC with surprise. “Are you sure that both these names; Zulfiqar Virk and Zulfiqar Ali belong to one person?” CEC asked Raja.

“Absolutely. That is the case,” he replied.

He said the polling stations where voters were denied entry had drastically low turnout between 18 to 24 per cent compared to 50 per cent turnout in those polling stations where voters were allowed entry. To a query by CEC, he said, those polling stations where turnout was drastically low had 80 per cent turnout in general elections 2018.

Raja said the ECP should order re-polling at 20 polling stations or all those polling stations that had low turnout or it should go for re-polling in the entire constituency.

Counsel for PTI’s Malhi said delayed submission of by-election results by some presiding officers cannot be categorised as rigging under the law.

Regarding low turnout in certain polling stations, Ali Zafar said, “People cannot be forced to vote. It’s entirely up to them whether or not they want to vote. If people did not come out to vote, this doesn’t mean there was any kind of irregularity in that polling station.”

The Counsel said the incidents of firing “take place in every election that’s why we didn’t complain about it.”

He said Prime Minister Imran Khan put weight behind re-polling at 20 polling stations. “The PM said so as a leader, but, as a candidate, Ali Asjad Malhi has objection to re-polling. We request the ECP to announce by-election result,” Zafar said.

Addressing Malhi, the CEC said, “Mr Asjad Ali Malhi, we did not receive a single complaint from you on the polling day. On the other hand, we kept receiving complaints from your rivals regarding foul play in by-election.”

After hearing both the sides, the ECP bench reserved its verdict that was announced after 3 pm— and re-polling was announced in the entire constituency on March 18.

Speaking to media at ECP after the verdict was reserved and before it was announced, Federal Information Minister Shibli Faraz, flanked by Malhi and Usman Dar, said, the government would accept “with open heart whatever the ECP decides about by-election and we would implement the ECP decision in letter and spirit.”

Logically, he said, re-polling needs to be held at 20 or 23 polling stations that involved rigging allegations. “Why should re-polling be held in entire constituency if rigging allegations concern only a few polling stations?” he said.

Malhi said “The PM has shown strong character and courage by supporting re-polling at 20 polling stations. He is my leader, and, as his follower, I am fully positive to re-polling wherever the ECP wants. No electoral candidate in Pakistan has shown this kind of courage— to agree to re-polling despite winning the election,” he said.

Usman Dar said PML-N is unnerved after by-election defeat in NA-75. “They don’t know what to do. First, they said there was rigging at 20 polling stations. Then they said there was rigging at 23 polling stations. Now, they want re-polling in the entire constituency,” he said.

Addressing the media again after ECP decision, the Information Minister, flanked by Vawda and other PTI leaders, said, the government accepts ECP’s decision on re-polling in NA-75. “Unlike PML-N, we don’t cry foul if any decision is issued against our will and expectation,” he said.

Muhammad Zubair from PML-N termed ECP’s decision a “victory of the truth.”

Later, after the issuance of its decision, the ECP announced to summon Chief Secretary Jawwad Rafique Malik and IGP Punjab Inam Gani on March 4. The Commission ordered Punjab government that Commissioner Gujranwala Division Syed Gulzar Hussain Shah and Regional Police Officer (RPO) Gujranwala Region Riaz Nazir Gara be transferred from Gujranwala and posted outside this Division.

The Commission also ordered that Deputy Commissioner Sialkot Zeeshan Javed Lashari, District Police Officer (DPO) Sialkot Hassan Asad Alvi, Assistant Commissioner Daska Asif Hussain, Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) Sambrial Zulfiqar Virk and DSP Daska Muhammad Ramazan Kamboh be suspended with immediate effect and should not be assigned any election duty in future.

The ECP said it would decide later whether it should directly hold inquiry against all these officers or direct provincial government to launch the related inquiry.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021