(Islamabad) Pakistan votes Thursday for elections tarnished by violence and suspicions of manipulation, further reinforced by the government’s decision to cut mobile phone services for the day.
At least seven members of the security forces were killed Thursday in two separate attacks in the northwest and southwest of the country, and other small explosions took place in the latter region leaving two injured, police said .
The vote in the Islamic Republic was marred by the deaths of 28 people on Wednesday in two bomb attacks claimed by the Islamic State (IS) group near candidate offices in the same province of Balochistan (southwest).
The Interior Ministry announced shortly after polling stations opened that mobile phone services were “temporarily suspended” across the country for security reasons.
Mobile internet is also cut, said Netblocks, an organization that monitors cybersecurity and internet governance.
“The current internet shutdown is among the most rigorous and extensive we have seen in any country,” Alp Toker, director of Netblocks, told AFP. This “practice is fundamentally undemocratic,” he denounced.
Polling stations must close at 5 p.m. (7 a.m. Eastern time) for the approximately 128 million registered voters, in a country placed under the surveillance of more than 650,000 members of the security forces.
“We came on foot and on a trailer pulled by a tractor. It’s been a very long and tough journey,” Ayesha Bibi, a housewife voting in Multan (center), told AFP.
“We don’t have a school in our village. Young girls have to go far to study. Women are unemployed (…) The government should give us work so that we can help our families,” she added.
The fairness of the vote was questioned in advance. The popular Imran Khan, 71, sentenced to three long prison terms, was unable to appear. And observers believe that the army supports Nawaz Sharif, 74, who could thus lead the country for the fourth time.
Imran Khan’s party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), has also been decimated by arrests and forced defections, and prevented from campaigning. Dozens of its candidates have been barred from running and the rest can only compete as independents.
Voters rely on texting to confirm which polling place they are registered at. One of them, Abdul Jabbar, 40, said he was prevented from using the service and locating his polling station because of internet problems. “Other PTI supporters eventually helped us find him,” he said.
“My only fear is whether my vote will be counted for the party I voted for,” said Syed Tassawar, a 39-year-old construction worker, as he left a polling station in Islamabad.
70% of Pakistanis “do not have confidence in the integrity of the elections,” the Gallup Institute pointed out this week. This reflects a democratic setback for a country that was ruled for decades by the military, but had seen progress since 2013, the year of the first transition from one civilian government to another.
The military has always had strong influence even under civilian rule, but observers say it interfered even more openly in these elections.
Imran Khan, who had nevertheless benefited from her favors to be elected in 2018, challenged her head on. He accused her of orchestrating his ouster from the post of prime minister in April 2022 and blamed her for his legal troubles.
His disgrace seems likely 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 problem with the army,” said the leader of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), when voting in a school in Lahore (east).
Even if the PML-N appears to be the favorite, the outcome of the vote could depend on participation, particularly among young people in a country where 44% of the electorate is under 35 years old.
In 2018, Imran Khan benefited from real popular enthusiasm, particularly from young people, thirsty for change after decades of domination by great family dynasties, considered corrupt.
An absolute majority seems a difficult objective 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 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, faces innumerable challenges.
Security has deteriorated, particularly since the return to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan in August 2021. Its economy is in tatters, with an abysmal debt and inflation of around 30%.
Whatever the verdict at the polls, the question of the longevity of the next government could quickly arise, in a country where no prime minister has ever completed his mandate.