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Imran Khan loses bid to retain poll symbol of cricket bat

Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Saturday rejected an attempt by former prime minister Imran Khan’s party to retain its traditional electoral symbol of a cricket bat, in the latest setback for the jailed leader ahead of a general election.

Mr Khan’s party, at odds with powerful army generals, has been grappling with a military-backed crackdown that has gathered pace ahead of the 8 Feb vote. The party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), alleges the military is attempting to keep it out of the election race, a charge the army denies.

A party’s electoral symbol on ballot papers is significant for voters to be able to identify its candidates in the South Asian nation of 241 million people, where the majority of the constituencies are in rural areas with low literacy.

Chief justice Qazi Faez Isa announced the ruling in a live late night telecast of the proceedings on the top court’s website.

Stripped of the bat, PTI candidates will need to contest on individual symbols, which could confuse its voters.

“This, by far, is the worst decision impacting million of voters,” the party said in a statement, with its chairman Barrister Gohar Khan announcing that its candidates will contest the election as independents.

PTI spokesman Zulfi Bukhari decried the ruling as a “sad day for democracy”, according to the Dawn newspaper.

Michael Kugelman, the director of the South Asia Institute at the Washington DC-based Wilson Center think tank, said: “This is brazen, not subtle, pre-polls rigging.”

The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) had stripped the PTI of the symbol on the technical grounds that it had not held intra-party elections, a prerequisite for any political party to take part in the national election.

The party had challenged that ruling in the top court.

The election campaign, delayed since November, has been a lacklustre race in an uncertain political environment with Khan, 71, jailed and disqualified from contesting.

His main rival and former three time prime minister Nawaz Sharif has been cleared of all court cases and a lifetime ban to contest the polls. Analysts say he appears to be the front runner, thanks to what they say is military support, an advantage in a country where army generals mostly decide on the making or breaking of governments. The army says it is apolitical.

Additional reporting by agencies