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Voting-counting under way after Pakistani parliamentary elections marred by violence

Pakistani Parliamentary Elections (International Foundation for Electoral Systems/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Vote counting was under way on February 8 following elections in Pakistan that took place amid worsening economic conditions and an upsurge of violence that prompted authorities to deploy thousands of extra security forces across the country and shut down mobile-phone networks in border areas.

Pakistanis flocked to the polls to elect a new parliament that will have to deal with galloping inflation running close to 30 percent and an acute political crisis prompted by the jailing ahead of the vote of the country’s most popular politician, former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan.

The election to fill the seats of the national assembly and four provincial assemblies were successful, according to the Election Commission. There was no clear trend six hours into the process of counting the paper ballots, which was expected to continue through the night. First projections of the outcome were expected to emerge early on February 9.

The head of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), Sikandar Sultan Raja, said that the parliamentary elections on February 8 were “100 percent transparent and peaceful.”

Five more people were killed during the 13-hour vote on February 8, one day after election-related violence killed nearly 30 people in Pakistan’s southwestern Balochistan Province.

The killings occurred despite the presence of more than 650,000 army, paramilitary, and police personnel tasked with ensuring the security of the elections and despite assurances by acting Prime Minister Anwar ul-Haq Kakar that “every effort to sabotage the situation of peace and security will be thwarted.”

Four police officers were killed in a bomb blast and gunfire targeting a police patrol in the Kulachi area of the Dera Ismail Khan district in the northwest and one person was shot dead in at attack on a police vehicle in Tank, in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

Borders with Iran and Afghanistan have also been closed to all traffic and mobile phone services have been suspended in frontier regions as a security measure, which prompted a wave of protests by opposition politicians and rights watchdogs.

The suspension of mobile-phone signals prompted strong criticism from Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e Insaf (PTI), which called it “a severe assault on democracy” and a “cowardly attempt by those in power to stifle dissent, manipulate the election’s outcome, and infringe upon the rights of the Pakistani people.”

The U.S. State Department said it was concerned about steps taken to “restrict freedom of expression” in Pakistan, especially related to phone and Internet access.

Mobile-phone and Internet services were suspended in most major cities, including Peshawar, which also drew a reaction from the Human Rights Commission.

The Interior Ministry said the step was taken to bolster security. The ministry claimed in a statement late on February 8 that it had restored mobile-phone networks and the Internet in several cities and would restore it in other cities as well. The claim has not been independently confirmed.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the leader of Pakistan People’s Party and a former foreign minister, has also protested the move to block mobile phones and the Internet, calling on the Electoral Commission (ECP) to immediately reverse it.

“Mobile phone services must be restored immediately across the country,” he said on X, formerly Twitter. “[I] have asked my party to approach both ECP and the courts for this purpose.”

The front-runner in the election appeared to be former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, 74. With Khan sidelined, Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) is expected to win the most seats in the vote.

Nawaz Sharif called on the country’s youth to support his party not Khan’s, telling younger voters not to “fall for” his political rival.

Nearly 18,000 candidates stood for seats in the national and four provincial assemblies. Some of the 266 seats in the national assembly were directly contested along with an additional 70 reserved for women and minorities and 749 places in the provincial parliaments.

Khan, 71, a retired cricket superstar who was prime minister in 2018-22, is the founder of the PTI and still enjoys huge popularity, but he is in prison after convictions on corruption charges and has been barred from holding office for a decade.

The Pakistan People’s Party, led by Zardari, who is the son of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, could play kingmaker if no single party receives enough parliamentary seats to form a government outright.