The campaign for probably the most hotly-contested by-elections in the history of Punjab came to an end at midnight on Friday and voters will decide the fate of two main contenders – the PTI and the PML-N – on Sunday (tomorrow).

By-elections to 20 Punjab Assembly seats will be held after 25 members of the PTI defected and voted in favour of Hamza Shehbaz of PML-N in the election of chief minister after Usman Buzdar resigned over severe political maneuvering in April.

PTI chief Imran Khan and PML-N vice-president Maryam Nawaz addressed the last rallies with old rhetoric of corruption and financial bunglings from either side.

The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) on Friday directed the candidates contesting the by-elections to end their campaigns and public meetings from midnight falling between July 15 and 16, barring them from addressing gatherings or taking out processions in the constituencies after the deadline.

The electoral watchdog instructed the political parties to follow the provision of law and exercise self-restraint so that polls could be held in a peaceful manner and warned that legal action would be taken against violators.

PTI: While addressing a rally in Faisalabad, Imran vowed to fight the PML-N “thieves” till the last ball.

“I will never let them get away with your Rs1,100 billion,” he said, adding that those who imposed “criminals” via a foreign conspiracy, the nation will never forgive them. “You are my team and I am your captain… and this captain knows how to compete.”

He claimed that Sharifs and Zardaris have never done anything with honesty, alleging that his party’s opponents cannot win without massive rigging.

Imran said that his party was going to win all the 20 constituencies.

The former prime minister alleged that the PML-N was preparing to rig the elections because the party knows that PTI would clean sweep the by-elections. 

“They will break all the records of rigging the elections,” he said while urging his supporters to guard the polling stations on the day of the elections. 

PML-N: Maryam, on the other hand, told a workers’ convention in Lahore that difficult time had passed, now good news would come for the nation. After many days, she said she fell asleep peacefully because the people got relief due to reduction in petrol and diesel prices.

The PML-N stalwart said that Lahore belonged to Nawaz Sharif and will always belong to him.

Later while addressing a rally in Multan, she said the Supreme Court had busted Imran’s ‘conspiracy narrative’. The PML-N-led government had removed ‘landmines’ setup by the previous regime by putting their lives at stake, she maintained.

“There is no greater culprit than the one who uses religion in politics. He [Imran] used religion card, hurled false allegations at us and also subjected Justice Qazi Faez Isa to victimisation.”

PREPARATION FOR BY-POLLS: Meanwhile, all the necessary arrangements for holding by-elections in 20 provincial assembly constituencies, including the printing of ballot papers have been wrapped up.

On Thursday, the ECP had sought the army’s deployment in five of the 20 constituencies — four in Lahore and one in Multan.

In a letter written to the Punjab chief secretary and the police chief, the ECP said it had come to its notice that armed personnel were present in different constituencies, including Lahore, which was likely to influence and jeopardise the conduct of the upcoming by-elections, besides being a precursor to violence. The watchdog declared several constituencies as ‘sensitive’.

The ECP issued standard operating procedures (SOPs) for polling staff to conduct the by-polls on Punjab Assembly constituencies scheduled for July 17.

The presiding officers (POs) have been directed to enable the location service feature of their smartphones. The PO should take a picture of form 45 and WhatsApp it to the RO in presence of polling agents.

The ECP, in a statement, has also said that adequate security arrangements have been made at the polling stations with police, Rangers and Army personnel deployed there. Deputy commissioners of police and officials of Rangers and Army will be present in the control rooms.

The location feature should stay active even while taking the picture of Form 45, the ECP statement reads. Polling agents have been ordered to be present when the picture is being taken. In case of a network connection failure, the PO has been told to immediately reach the ROs’ office.

The POs have been instructed to submit the polling record, including Form 45, on time. The RO, meanwhile, was tasked with making all the forensic details part of the record.

The ECP has further asked the candidates to ensure training of their polling agents and instruct them not to leave the polling station without receiving the presiding officer’s verified form 45.

Every presiding officer was bound to provide a signed copy of form 45 to the relevant polling agent in the polling station.

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