The armed forces will only support the electoral process and have "no direct role in conduct of elections," Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor said in a press conference on Tuesday in which he also invited people to come out and vote for "whatever leader, and whatever party they like".

Terming the third democratic transfer of power in Pakistan a continuity of the democratic process, the director general (DG) Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) said the armed forces will only support the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) in its duties according to the code of conduct provided by the commission itself.

He pointedly recalled that this was not the first time that the forces were being deployed for election duty.

He said that in 1997, 192,000 troops had been delegated on duty to oversee 25,000 polling stations for what he termed a "full deployment". Then, in 2002, the army deployed less than 35,000 troops for 64,470 polling stations "because the ECP only tasked the Army with overall security". Likewise, in 2008, 39,000 troops were deployed even though the number of polling stations was much higher (64,100) because the troops were, again, only in charge of overall security.

He added that the 2013 elections had been difficult security-wise because of the ongoing war against militancy. Many politicians had received death threats and an Awami National Party (ANP) leader had even been killed. To counter the prevailing insecurity, 75,000 troops had been deployed for 70,185 polling stations, Gen Ghafoor recalled.

He said that in the 2018 elections, 105.95 million eligible voters will be able to exercise their right to vote at 85,307 polling stations, hosted inside 48,500 buildings as more than one station may exist in the same building. A total of 371,388 security forces officials will be deployed for election duty.

"Considering the situation on our borders, the civil armed forces and retired personnel are also being commissioned for the purpose," he said, adding that the total deployment includes 134,894 reservists (who have retired from forces within the past five years) and around 4,000 personnel each from Pakistan Air Force and Navy.

Gen Ghafoor explained that this time around, the ECP has entrusted the Army with six tasks:

  1. Maintenance of overall security in the country.

  2. Provision of security to printing presses.

  3. Transportation of the material before election day.

  4. Transportation of material from RO office to polling stations as well as security of polling staff on polling day.

  5. Deployment on polling day inside and outside polling stations.

  6. Securely transporting election material and polling staff back to Election Commission offices.

He clarified that the army will not take over any printing material during the entire process and that the ECP will have its officers present at all times, who the soldiers will only provide security to.

"The counting of ballots is the ECP's job," he added.

He said that on polling day, troops will be stationed both inside and outside the polling stations. Two security officials will be present inside and two outside 20,831 'sensitive' polling stations, he said, while deployment will be lower at non-sensitive polling stations.

The DG ISPR said that the army has, with the ECP, set up an Army Election Support Centre which will ensure coordination with the commission.

The troops, he said, will ensure that only polling staff, polling agents, voters and other authorised people can enter the stations.

"We have to help the ECP in a non-political, non-partisan manner," Gen Ghafoor said.

He said no unauthorised person would be allowed at the printing presses until the printing of election material is completed by July 21. He also said that the troops would accompany ECP officials during the transportation process only to protect material from falling into the hands of any unauthorised person. He added that the ECP will have complete support of the armed forces, and that military helicopters and airplanes may also be used for transportation if the need arises.

"If you see any irregularity on election day, please make a note and bring it to our notice," he said. "Report it to the ECP and report to us. Please leave the soldiers deployed to election duty alone. They are there to do a job and have been briefed accordingly."

"Go out and vote for whatever party and whatever leader you want to vote for," he continued. "Let's try to ensure that if the election turnout has been 40pc in the past, it is much higher this time around."

Responding to some tough questions on electoral engineering and the alleged role of the so-called establishment in subverting the democratic order, Gen Ghafoor noted that there had been no election in the country's history when political parties did not allege that some form of rigging had taken place.

"How is it possible to tell 106m people who to vote for?" he asked. "How is it possible that we secretly tell [around] 350,000 troops that 'you should do this'?"

In response to questions about people switching loyalties, he recalled that candidates switch parties before every election and that "there is nothing new about this".

He also disassociated the army from any role in the allotment of the 'Jeep' symbol to certain independent candidates, saying that it was the ECP which allots symbols to candidates.

"The jeep you are trying to paint as ours is not even our jeep," he remarked wryly, an apparent reference to the difference in the model of jeeps commissioned for army use and the one as it shows on the symbol.

He also said that a PML-N candidate from Multan — who had accused the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of pressuring him into switching parties but then backtracked saying it had, in fact, been the Agriculture department — has been investigated by the Agriculture Department for around two years for alleged misdoings during a past tenure there.

To another question, Gen Ghafoor also assured that the army was monitoring cyber threats, especially those coming from other countries.

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