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Pakistani Provincial Administration In A Bind Over Messy Municipal Elections

Imran Khan (C) the leader of Tehreek-e Insaf.

The government of a northwestern Pakistani province distinguished itself by spearheading a long campaign for election transparency after accusing authorities of massive irregularities in parliamentary polls two years ago.

But the Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) or Justice Party-led government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa now faces mounting criticism over local elections on May 30 that were controversially marred by widespread violence and mismanagement.

Opposition politicians have called for the PTI's resignation, invoking statements and arguments made by PTI leaders themselves during the campaign for election reform last year.

"Even [PTI] leader Imran Khan has admitted that the local elections were marked by massive fraud. In addition, some 40 lives were lost during the the polling process," Asfandyar Wali Khan, leader of the opposition Awami National Party (ANP), told Radio Mashaal. "Now they should show some honor and courage by taking responsibility for the irregularities and the lives lost and resign from office immediately."

Another ANP leader, Amir Haider Hoti, said most political parties in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, including those allied with the PTI, have cited widespread irregularities in the municipal elections.

"After all this election mess, there is no justification for this administration to remain in power," he told Radio Mashaal on June 3. "We demand a caretaker government here that can swiftly hold new parliamentary and local elections."

The election was a massive undertaking. More than 13 million eligible voters elected some 41,000 representatives from among 84,000 candidates. The winners will represent constituents in three tiers of local councils.

Their fate, however, still hangs in the balance. The Islamist Jammat-e Islmai (JI) party, the PTI's coalition partner in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, is up in arms against the flawed vote.

"At the May 30 polls, the PTI broke all previous records of election-rigging," Muhammad Ibrahim, a senior JI leader, told reporters on June 2. "Before announcing the final results on June 7, the government should address all of the election-related complaints and instead of covering up should punish the culprits."

But addressing thousands of complaints and disputes over the elections is a daunting proposition.

PTI chief Khan, a former cricketing hero turned politician, is scrambling to limit the damage to his party from the controversial polls.

"There has been an outcry about rigging in the elections, and I am disappointed that the JI, who is our ally, has also alleged that rigging took place," he told journalists on June 2. "If all parties agree, we are ready for re-vote. If they want do-over at [problematic] polling stations [only], we are ready for that, as well."

Khan said the country's election commission needs to shoulder the blame for flaws in the process. "It is the [election commission's] job, not that of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government, to hold elections," he said.

But the election commission strongly countered his assertions. "[The] maintenance of law and order during elections is the sole responsibility of the provincial government," a commission press statement said on June 1. "Elections are a joint exercise during which no organization can absolve itself of responsibility."

Scrambling For Damage Control

The crisis is a remarkable role reversal for the PTI.

Beginning last August, Khan led thousands of supporters to camp out in front of Pakistani parliament for nearly five months. He pressed for investigations into alleged fraud in 2013 elections, which he said deprived the PTI of a victory in Punjab -- Pakistan's eastern province that claims a majority of parliamentary seats because of its estimated 100 million people, who form a majority of the country's electorate.

A hallmark of Khan's protest was relentless calls for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to resign. Khan accused him of ruling the country based on fraudulent election results.

In what is seen as a major blow to the PTI's image, PTI minister Ali Amin Gandapur faces charges of snatching ballot boxes and threatening election staff and police in his hometown of Dera Ismail Khan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's southern city.

Pakistani television footage showed Gandapur's car surrounded by angry protesters outside a polling station after allegedly snatching ballot boxes. He denies any wrongdoing, while Khan has said Gandapur will be sacked if proved guilty.

The arrest of an opposition leader on murder charges also prompted harsh criticism and protests against the PTI.

On May 30, Mian Iftikhar Hussain, an ANP leader, was arrested by the police for allegedly ordering the shooting of a young PTI supporter in his village near Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's capital, Peshawar.

Hussain was granted bail after the father of the victim said he was not his son's murderer. Hussain, an anti-Taliban campaigner whose only son was killed by insurgents in 2010, is widely respected for standing up to the Taliban.

Hussain and the ANP accuse the PTI of orchestrating his arrest and even instigating a mob to kill him before his arrest on May 30.

Ghulam Ghaus contributed reporting from Peshawar, Pakistan.

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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, the editor of RFE/RL's Gandhara website, is a journalist specializing in coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan.