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Friday, 23 February 2024
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Millions vote across Pakistan as cellphone service suspended

Millions vote across Pakistan as cellphone service suspended

- Over 128M voters eligible to cast ballots to elect new government for 5 years

- Main contest expected to be between Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, Pakistan People's Party, independent candidates backed by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party

- Over 28,600 candidates from around 150 political parties are vying for National Assembly and provincial assembly seats

- Around 100 international observers to monitor crucial polls as government temporarily suspends cellphone and mobile internet services across the country


By Islamuddin Sajid and Aamir Latif

ISLAMABAD/KARACHI, Pakistan (AA) - Some 128 million people in Pakistan are voting in crucial general elections on Thursday to elect a new government for the next five years amid heightened security and suspension of cellphone and mobile internet services.

One member of the security services was killed in the Kot Azam area of Tank in the country’s northwest when unknown gunmen opened fire on a security team guarding the polling staff. Voting was temporarily suspended at one polling station.

Television footage showed voters queuing outside polling stations in the capital Islamabad as well as in Lahore, Karachi, Peshawar, Quetta, and other key cities. Voting will continue until 5 p.m. local time (1200GMT).

More than 128 million registered voters are eligible to cast their ballots following a nail-biting end to an intense election process that has been marred by terrorist attacks.

Ballots will be cast for 266 general seats of the lower house – the National Assembly – and 749 general seats of the country’s four provincial assemblies.

Thousands of police and paramilitary troops have been deployed across the country to ensure peaceful polling against the backdrop of recent militant attacks on polling stations in the southwestern Balochistan and northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces.


- Cellphone, mobile internet services cut

The country's 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 Election Commission of Pakistan (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 Zaradari 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.


- Key politicians cast votes

Key political leaders cast their votes in their hometowns including former Prime Minister 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.

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