Pakistan voted for disputed elections and without mobile internet

The voting was marred by attacks and suspicions of manipulation. Pakistan voted on Thursday for elections marred by violence and suspicions of manipulation, further exacerbated by the government’s decision to cut off mobile phone services for the day. Polling stations closed at 5:00 PM for the approximately 128 million registered voters, but those who were already within the premises were allowed to vote beyond the deadline.

More than 650,000 members of the security forces had been deployed to ensure the security of the ballot, in which the popular Imran Khan, imprisoned, was unable to run. Observers believe that the army supports Nawaz Sharif, who could thus lead the country for the fourth time. The election had been bloodied on Wednesday by the deaths of 28 people in two bomb attacks claimed by the Islamic State (IS) in the province of Balochistan (southwest). On Thursday, at least seven members of the security forces were killed in two separate attacks in the northwest of the country and in Balochistan, and other small explosions occurred in the latter province, injuring two people, the police reported.

The Ministry of the Interior announced shortly after the opening of the polling stations that mobile phone services would be “temporarily suspended” throughout the country for security reasons. Mobile internet was also cut off, Netblocks, an organization that monitors cybersecurity and internet governance, reported. “The current internet outage is among the most rigorous and widespread we have observed in any country,” Alp Toker, director of Netblocks, told AFP. “This practice is fundamentally antidemocratic,” he denounced. The first results are expected before midnight, but it may take until Friday to see a real trend emerging.

Democratic Backtracking

Ayesha Bibi, a housewife voting in Multan (center), said she came “on foot and on a tractor trailer”. “It was a very long and tough journey,” she stressed, calling on the government to provide work for women, so “we can help our families.” The fairness of the election had been called into question in advance. Former Prime Minister Imran Khan, 71, had been sentenced to three long prison terms. And his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), had been decimated by arrests and forced defections, and prevented from campaigning.

Voters depend on receiving SMS messages to confirm in which polling station they are registered. One of them, Abdul Jabbar, 40, said he had been prevented from using the service and locating his polling station due to internet problems. “Other PTI supporters finally helped us find it,” he said. “My only fear is whether my vote will be properly counted for the party I voted for,” said Syed Tassawar, a 39-year-old construction worker, leaving a polling station in Islamabad.

Seventy percent of Pakistanis “have no confidence in the integrity of the elections,” Gallup Institute pointed out this week. This reflects a democratic backtracking for a country that has been ruled for decades by the military but had made progress since 2013, the year of the first transition from one civilian government to another. The army has always had strong influence even under civilian rule, but observers believe it has openly interfered even more in these elections. Imran Khan, who had benefited from its favors to be elected in 2018, defied it head-on. He accused it of orchestrating his removal from the post of Prime Minister in April 2022 and blamed him for his legal troubles.

Countless Strategic Challenges

His disgrace seems set to benefit Nawaz Sharif, 74, who returned to Pakistan in October after four years of exile in London. “There is no need for an agreement, but in reality, I have never had any problems with the army,” said the leader of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) when he voted in a school in Lahore (east). Even if the PML-N appears as a favorite, the outcome of the election could depend on participation, especially of the young people in a country where 44% of the electorate is under 35 years of age.

In 2018, Imran Khan had enjoyed real popular enthusiasm, especially from the youth, thirsty for change after decades of domination by large, corrupt family dynasties. Absolute majority seems a difficult goal to achieve for the PML-N, which will probably have to form a coalition. Perhaps with the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, son of the former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, assassinated in 2007. Pakistan, which has a nuclear arsenal and occupies a strategic position between Afghanistan, China, India, and Iran, is facing countless challenges.

Security has deteriorated, especially since the return to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan in August 2021. Its economy is in tatters, with staggering debt and inflation nearing 30%. Whatever the verdict of the ballot box, the question of the longevity of the next government could quickly arise in a country where no Prime Minister has ever completed his term.

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