UPDATE 3 - Amid cell phone, internet shutdown, polls close in Pakistan
Counting has begun as millions of people cast their vote to elect new government for a period of 5 years
UPDATES WITH DETAILS ON VOTE COUNTING, STATEMENTS BY PRESIDENT, PREMIER; CHANGES DECK
By Islamuddin Sajid and Aamir Latif
ISLAMABAD / KARACHI (AA) - Polling in Pakistan closed on Thursday after millions of eligible voters cast their ballot in general election to elect a new government for the next five years amid heightened security and suspension of cellphone and mobile internet services. The polling day witnessed several bombings which resulted in at least eight deaths.
According to the Election Commission of Pakistan, polling has ended and counting has begun. The preliminary results are expected to trickle down late in the night.
Polling began at 8 a.m. local time (0300GMT) and ended at 5 p.m.
Thousands of police and paramilitary troops were deployed across the country to ensure a peaceful election against the backdrop of recent militant attacks on polling stations in the southwestern Balochistan and northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces.
At least eight people, including a child and seven security personnel, were killed and several others were injured in attacks in the two provinces.
Clashes between political party workers were also reported in different parts of the country, but no deaths were reported from any area.
Voters formed long lines outside polling stations in the capital Islamabad, as well as in Lahore, Karachi, Peshawar, Quetta, and other key cities.
More than 128 million people are eligible to vote to elect lawmakers to 266 general seats of the country's lower parliamentary house — the National Assembly — and 749 general seats in four provincial assemblies. However, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) will release the details later in the evening on how many votes were cast.
- Cellphone, mobile internet services cut
Earlier in the morning, the Interior Ministry ordered a temporary suspension of cellphone service, which also cut mobile internet services across the country.
It said the decision was taken "to take measures to safeguard against” security threats amid a "deteriorating security situation."
At least 29 people were killed in Pakistan on Wednesday in three separate bombing incidents.
"Real-time network data show that internet blackouts are now in effect in multiple regions of Pakistan in addition to mobile network disruptions; the incident comes on election day and follows months of digital censorship targeting the political opposition," said a brief statement by NetBlocks.
Reports of delays in voting were received from several areas.
Many people complained that they were having problems finding their polling places as an Election Commission information hotline was not working due to suspended mobile services.
According to the ECP, as many as 28,626 candidates from about 150 political parties are vying for National Assembly and provincial assembly seats across the country.
ECP head Sikandar Sultan Raja stressed that the suspension of cellphone and internet services "does not affect" the watchdog's work.
“Last night authorities told me that internet service will not be suspended but I saw on TV channels (on Thursday morning) that the internet service has been suspended across the country,” Raja told reporters in Islamabad.
However, candidates and members of the public criticized the move.
Former Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari demanded "immediate" restoration of cellphone service. "Mobile phone services must be restored immediately across the country. I have asked my party to approach both ECP and the courts for this purpose," Zardari said on X.
“Shutting down mobile networks on polling day is the beginning of election day rigging. Pre-poll environment was already one of the worst in Pak’s history,” Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar, an independent candidate from Islamabad, said on X.
Khokhar added: “Cutting candidates off from their agents and staff on election day is unacceptable.”
“How’s one supposed to keep a check and highlight any irregularity? By the time news comes out the election would have been stolen,” he said.
Rights watchdog Amnesty International said the decision to suspend telecommunications and mobile internet services on an election day "is a blunt attack on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly."
"It is reckless to impede access to information as people head out to polling stations on the heels of devastating bomb blasts and what has been an intense crackdown on the opposition in the lead up to the elections in the country," said Livia Saccardi, Amnesty's interim deputy director for South Asia.
- Key politicians cast votes
Key political leaders cast their votes in their hometowns including former Prime Ministers Nawaz Sharif and Shehbaz Sharif, who voted in Lahore.
Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Pakistan chief Maulana Fazlurehman voted in Dera Ismail Khan and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf leader Gohar Khan cast his ballot in the Bunir area of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
Former Prime Minister Imran Khan cast his vote through a mail-in ballot from jail while his wife missed her vote.
Former Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, ex-Punjab province Chief Minister Chaudhry Parvez Elahi, and former Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmad also cast their votes from jail through postal ballots.
Around 100 international observers are in Pakistan to monitor the crucial polls, according to the Information Ministry.
A fierce three-way contest is expected between the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz led by three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the center-left Pakistan People's Party headed by former Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, and independent candidates backed by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, whose founder and former Prime Minister Imran Khan is in jail.
He has been sentenced in three separate cases on charges including corruption and leaking state secrets. The ECP has also barred his party from using its iconic cricket bat electoral symbol to identify candidates contesting the polls.
Several other regional and religio-political parties including Jamaat-e-Islami, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, the Awami National Party and the Balochistan National Party are also competing for seats in the national and provincial assemblies.
A party needs a simple majority of 169 seats to form the national government.
Pakistan follows a parliamentary form of democracy where the lower house elects the prime minister, who himself must be a member of the National Assembly.
The four provincial assemblies elect their respective leaders, or chief ministers, in the same way.
- President Alvi, Premier Kakar laud 'peaceful' elections
Pakistan President Arif Alvi and interim Prime Minister Anwaarul Haq Kakar congratulated the nation for the "successful" election and praised young people for their "huge participation."
"Well done. Pakistan has great hopes from our youth because you have to take our country forward to rebuild and strengthen our country," Alvi said on X.
Kakar also thanked and congratulated the nation on the conduct of the election, lauding the efforts of the ECP, interim provincial governments, armed forces, civil armed forces, police, law enforcement agencies, election staff, and the media.
"This momentous occasion is not just a testament to the resilience and strength of our democratic processes but also to the indomitable spirit of the Pakistani people," he said.
Kakar added that the high voter turnout is an indication that the public remains committed to shaping the future of the country.
On the "terror" incidents in the country's southwestern and northwestern provinces, he said the ECP and security forces "conducted free and fair election across the country."
"Your resolve in the aftermath of the recent terrorism incidents, continuing to participate in the electoral process, is a powerful statement against the forces that seek to destabilize our nation," he added.
*Riyaz ul Khaliq contributed to this story from Istanbul
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