Counting was underway Thursday after millions of Pakistanis voted in an election marred by rigging allegations and a shutdown of mobile phone services, while the country’s most popular politician Imran Khan languished in jail.
Pollsters predicted a low turnout from the country’s 128 million eligible voters following a lacklustre campaign overshadowed by the jailing of former prime minister Khan, and the hobbling of his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party by the military-led establishment.
The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) is expected to win the most seats in Thursday’s vote, with analysts saying its 74-year-old founder Nawaz Sharif has the blessing of the generals.
Adding to concerns about the integrity of the vote, authorities suspended mobile phone services just as polls opened and only began to restore them more than three hours after polls shut at 5:00 pm local time (1200 GMT).
The interior ministry said the outage was “to maintain law and order” after two blasts on Wednesday that killed 28 people.
Nighat Dad, a lawyer who runs the not-for-profit Digital Rights Foundation, called the blackout “an attack on the democratic rights of Pakistanis”.
“Shutting down mobile phone services is not a solution to national security concerns. If you shut down access to information you create more chaos”.
More than 650,000 army, paramilitary and police personnel were deployed to provide security on Thursday.
At least seven officers were killed in two separate attacks targeting election security details, and officials reported a string of minor blasts in southwestern Balochistan province that wounded two people.
– ‘Fear for my vote’ –
Voters in Pakistan were reliant on a text messaging service to confirm the polling station where they were registered.
Forty-year-old Abdul Jabbar said the internet disruption prevented him and his wife from finding their polling station.
“Other PTI supporters helped us to trace it in the end,” he told AFP.
First results are expected before midnight, but voting patterns are unlikely to emerge until Friday morning.
“My only fear is whether my vote will be counted for the same party I cast it for. At the same time, for the poor it does not matter who is ruling — we need a government that can control inflation,” said Syed Tassawar, a 39-year-old construction worker
First-time voter Haleema Shafiq, a 22-year-old psychology student, said she believed in the importance of voting.
“I believe in democracy. I want a government that can make Pakistan safer for girls,” she told AFP in Islamabad.
In the central city of Multan, Ayesha Bibi said the next government must provide more schools for rural women.
“We came here by foot and then on a tractor trailer. It was a very difficult and hard journey,” said the housewife.
– ‘Security measures’ –
On Wednesday, at least 28 people were killed and more than 30 wounded by two bomb blasts outside the offices of candidates in the province, attacks claimed hours later by the Islamic State group.
Justifying the mobile phone shutdown, an interior ministry spokesman said “security measures are essential to maintain law and order situation and to deal with potential threats”.
Around 8:30 pm (1530 GMT) the spokesman said services “are partially restoring in different parts of the country” and “will be restored in the whole country soon”.
The foreign ministry said land borders with neighbours Iran and Afghanistan would also be closed to all traffic Thursday as a security measure.
The election figures are staggering in the nuclear-armed nation of 240 million people — the world’s fifth-most populous.
Nearly 18,000 candidates are standing for seats in the national and four provincial assemblies, with 266 seats directly contested in the former — an additional 70 reserved for women and minorities — and 749 places in the regional parliaments.
– Tables turned –
Thursday’s election has a similar air to the 2018 poll, but with the tables turned.
Then, it was Sharif who was disqualified from running because of a string of convictions for graft, while Khan swept to power with the backing of the military, as well as genuine support.
As he cast his vote at a school in Lahore Thursday, Sharif denied making any deal with the military to rule.
“Actually I have never had any problems with the military,” he said.
The history of Pakistan elections is chequered with allegations of rigging but also favouritism, said Bilal Gilani, executive director of polling group Gallup Pakistan.
“It’s a managed democracy that the military runs,” he said.
Unlike the last poll, however, the opposition party has had its name removed from ballots, forcing PTI-selected candidates to run as independents.
Khan, a former international cricketer who led Pakistan to victory in the World Cup in 1992, was allowed a postal ballot from Adiala Jail, a PTI official said.
The former PM was last week sentenced to lengthy jail terms for treason, graft, and an illegal marriage.
Analysts say the character assassination shows how worried the military is that PTI-selected candidates could still prove a decisive factor in Thursday’s vote.
“Now begins the post-poll rigging,” PTI information secretary Raoof Hasan told AFP.
However, he said the party still has a “good chance to spring a surprise” if Pakistanis were able to cast their vote fairly.
If Sharif does not win a ruling majority, he will most likely still take power via a coalition with one or more junior partners — including the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), another family-run dynasty now led by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.
Whoever wins takes over an economy in tatters, with inflation galloping at nearly 30 percent and a balance of payments deficit that has frozen imports, severely hampering industrial growth.