ISLAMABAD - *The Election Commission of Pakistan has granted broad judicial powers to the army at polling stations during next week’s general election.*
The July 25 election is seen as a two-way race between parties led by former cricket star Imran Khan and now-jailed former PM Nawaz Sharif, who has accused the establishment of working behind the scenes to favor Khan, which it denies.
About 371,000 troops will spread out across Pakistan to guard the election, about three times the number during the last election in 2013.
In a notice this month, the ECP gave soldiers the authority of a “magistrate”, to hold on-the-spot trials of anyone breaking election laws and sentence them.
In one scenario, those found guilty of the offence of “corrupt practice” could be imprisoned for up to six months.
The authority was given to officers in charge of polling stations, said Altaf Khan, a spokesman for the ECP . Asked if the broader responsibility could be misused, he said, “No, not at all… They are our own people.”
Some political parties objected to the move, saying the military’s traditional election duties have been limited to ensuring security.
“It is a new first,” Farhatullah Babar, a former Senator from the PPP, told Reuters. “Governance, society and politics have already been militarized dangerously.”
The army would remain neutral, military spokesman Major General Asif Ghafoor told a news conference this month.
“The Pakistan army’s role is to support the election commission with the tasks they have asked us to help,” he said.
Imran Khan’s PTI welcomed the order, however.
“The ECP is supposed to ensure free and fair elections and this step seems to be in that direction,” said party spokesman Naeem Ul Haq.