Polls close across Pakistan after millions vote in election mired in controversy – CNN

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Islamabad, Pakistan
CNN
 — 

Violence marred several of Pakistan’s polling stations on Thursday, as millions voted in an election in which old dynasties vied for power while the country’s widely popular former leader languishes behind bars.

Polling stations across the country were beginning the count after polls closed on Thursday evening, according to Pakistan’s Electoral Commission.

The much-anticipated election, already delayed for months, comes as the country of 220 million faces mounting challenges – from economic uncertainty and frequent militant attacks, to climate catastrophes that are putting its most vulnerable at risk.

In a vivid illustration of the surging political violence in the run up to the vote, 30 people were killed in twin blasts targeting campaign offices in the country’s restive Balochistan province on Wednesday, which the Islamic State Pakistan Province militant group claimed responsibility for.

The Pakistan Armed Forces said 51 terrorist attacks took place in the country throughout the election season, mostly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces, but “many potential threats were neutralized.”

Pakistan had been on high alert due to concerns regarding security on election day, with 650,000 security personnel deployed nationwide to ensure the safety of voters, according to the country’s information ministry. Military personnel and civil armed forces were deployed at “approximately 6,000 selected most sensitive polling stations,” according to the Pakistan Armed Forces.

And Mohsin Dawar, a former member of the Pakistani National Assembly, said Taliban militants had taken over polling stations in the country’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

“Militants have been issuing threats to the locals and to the polling staff,” he wrote in a letter to the Election Commission of Pakistan Thursday, adding that three female polling agents “very narrowly escaped attacks” in a polling station.

Pakistan’s Interior Ministry said Thursday it had decided to temporarily suspend mobile internet services nationwide as the elections were ongoing.

“As a result of the recent incidents of terrorism in the country, precious lives have been lost, security measures are essential to maintain the law and order situation and deal with possible threats,” a statement from the ministry said. It later said mobile services were slowly being restored as of Thursday night, after the polls had closed.

Some activists accused the authorities of censorship, saying the internet suspension was “political in nature” and not “mandated by the court.”

“Access to the internet during elections is critical as evidence of instances of rigging can be reported live by citizens on social media, and journalists can report live,” said Usama Khilji, a digital rights activist from Islamabad.

“Not having internet access can create a sense of panic for voters, and discourage some from going to vote, especially women voters for whom mobility is already an impediment.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Amnesty International also condemned the suspension of internet and cellular services.

Pakistan will also temporarily close its border crossings with Iran and Afghanistan as a security measure, according to Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mumtaz Zahra Baloch.

Elsewhere, political tensions are running high amid accusations of interference by the military, which it denies.

A street is festooned with posters of Pakistan's former Prime Minister and leader of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) party, Nawaz Sharif in Lahore on February 4, 2024, ahead of national elections. (Photo by Arif ALI / AFP) (Photo by ARIF ALI/AFP via Getty Images)
Election officials empty ballot boxes to count votes cast in Karachi.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Volker Türk, urged authorities to ensure a “fully free and fair vote” in a statement Tuesday.

“Elections are an important moment to reaffirm the country’s commitment to human rights and democracy, and to ensure the right to participation of all its people, including women and minorities,” OHCHR spokesperson Liz Throssell added.

Analysts have described the vote as the least credible in the country’s post-independence history, accusing authorities of “pre-poll rigging” amid a wide crackdown on popular former leader Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party.

Former cricket star Khan, 71, who was ousted from power in a storm of controversy, remains imprisoned on multiple convictions and banned from contesting the vote against his rivals. The PTI has been prohibited from using its famous cricket bat symbol on ballots, dealing a blow to millions of illiterate people who might use it to cast their vote, and television stations are banned from running Khan’s speeches.

His longtime foe, veteran politician Nawaz Sharif, 74, a scion of the elite Sharif political dynasty, is seeking a historic fourth term as leader in what would be a remarkable political comeback following years of self-exile overseas after he was sentenced to prison on corruption charges.

Sharif remains widely popular in Pakistan’s Punjab province – the country’s most populous and a key electoral battleground – where his Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) party has been lauded for advancing mega infrastructural projects.

Standing against him is Bhutto Zardari, the 35-year-old son of slain former leader Benazir Bhutto, seeking to reestablish his Pakistan People’s Party as a major political force.

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