4 cops killed as violence, rigging allegations mar Pakistan general elections
A vehicle of security forces was attacked with a rocket in North Waziristan district of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa
Pakistan on Thursday voted in the general elections in which former prime minister Nawaz Sharif is hoping to secure a record fourth term with the backing of the powerful military amid a crackdown on his rival Imran Khan's party and terror attacks on security personnel.
Amidst tight security, polling began at 8.00 am and continued until 5.00 pm. Soon after the voting started, mobile services in Pakistan were suspended owing to the "deteriorating security situation", a day after twin terror attacks killed at least 30 people in Balochistan province.
Four policemen on election duty were killed in a terror attack in Dera Ismail Khan on Thursday. A security officer was killed after gunmen opened fire at soldiers in the Tank area of Pakistan's northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region.
A vehicle of security forces was attacked by unknown persons with a rocket in the area of Mir Ali in the North Waziristan district of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.
Several politicians in the country immediately demanded the restoration of mobile and internet services. Some politicians said that shutting down mobile networks on polling day had raised suspicions and "is the beginning of election day rigging".
The ministry of interior said the decision to suspend mobile phone services would be re-evaluated at 3.00 pm. The border crossing with Afghanistan and Iran would also remain closed both for cargo and pedestrians on Thursday owing to security reasons.
A countrywide public holiday was declared to enable a total of 128 million registered voters to cast their votes and elect a new government that they hope will stabilise the country's economy. The counting was scheduled to start soon after the conclusion of voting.
Nearly 650,000 security personnel have been deployed across the country as at least 30 people were killed on Wednesday in twin blasts in the restive Balochistan province.
Pakistan's chief election commissioner (CEC) Sikandar Sultan Raja said elections would be held in a peaceful atmosphere, but the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) would not give any instructions to the interior ministry on the resumption of services. "If we ask them to turn mobile services on and a terror incident takes place, who will be responsible?" he questioned. The CEC maintained their system doesn't rely on the internet.
According to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), a total of 5,121 candidates are in the race for the National Assembly (NA) seats. These include 4,807 male, 312 female and two transgenders. For the four provincial assemblies, 12,695 candidates are in the field including 12,123 males, 570 women and two transgenders.
A low turnout was witnessed in most constituencies after the opening of polls but the situation gradually improved as the day proceeded. In many places, some voters waited outside polling stations where the doors had not opened since the polling staff had not shown up for duty.
At many polling stations, the staff also complained about a shortage of ballot papers and incorrect papers leading to a long delay in the voting process.
The cold weather and rains in some parts of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa also apparently kept away voters in many parts of the two provinces.
Abdul Wali, queuing up outside a polling station in the Gulraiz area of Rawalpindi, said he was excited to cast his vote. "I am standing here with the hope that a new government will control prices and provide essential food items at cheaper rates," said 45-year Wali.
Shams Ali, 33, who just cast his vote in the Muslim High School polling station on Murree Road Rawalpindi, said he came to vote to fulfil his national duty. "I don't see any immediate relief from the new government, but democracy is good for the country. So I came to vote," he said.
Rubina Akhtar, a housewife who came to vote in Tarli, a rural area of Islamabad, said: "I hope that prices of daily life items become cheaper with the new government in place," she said.
A scuffle was reported between PML-N and Tehreek-e-Insaf party workers in NA-49 Attock, leading to a temporary suspension of polling at two polling stations. The scuffle erupted due to a halt in the polling process at Government Boys' High School Bhangi Hazro. The polling resumed after a delay of approximately five hours.
National Democratic Movement (NDM) chairman Mohsin Dawar said: "Taliban have taken over the polling stations in NA-40, Tappi."
With former prime minister Imran Khan in jail, Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) is tipped to emerge as the single largest party in the elections. Khan's PTI candidates are contesting the polls independently after the Supreme Court upheld the decision of the election commission to deprive his party of its iconic election symbol cricket 'bat'.
In a brief pre-recorded message, the jailed founding chairman of PTI urged voters to use their ballot. "Make sure you come out and Vote in huge numbers tomorrow," he was quoted as saying in a video posted on his X handle.
Khan, 71, and other prominent incarcerated political figures have cast their votes through a postal ballot from Adiala Jail. Other political leaders who have managed to vote by mail included former foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, former Punjab chief minister Chaudhry Parvez Elahi, Awami Muslim League chief Sheikh Rashid, and former information minister Fawad Chaudhry.
However, Khan's wife Bushra Bibi was unable to participate in the voting as she was convicted and arrested after the completion of the postal voting process.
Sharif cast his vote in the National Assembly (NA) 128 constituency of the Model Town area of Lahore. He was accompanied by his daughter Maryam and other party leaders. His brother and PML-N president Shehbaz cast his vote at polling station number 82 in Lahore's NA-128 constituency. Talking to journalists, the PML-N president urged the people to cast their votes for the country's progress.
Former president Asif Ali Zardari cast his vote in the Nawab Shah area of Sindh province.
After casting his vote, President Arif Alvi urged the countrymen to exercise their voting rights, saying that the country needed their opinion as never before.
In total 266 NA seats were up for grabs out of 336, but polling was postponed on at least one seat after a candidate was killed in a gun attack in Bajaur. A party must win 133 seats out of 265 being contested to form the next government.
Sharif, 74, will be eying the premiership for a record fourth time. The PML-N is likely to win between 115 to 132 National Assembly seats. Adding together the reserved seats of women and minorities would mean the party stands a chance to form its government single-handedly with a simple majority if the official assessment turns out right.
Khan's PTI after falling out with the powerful establishment complained of pressure and lack of space to carry out its campaign. The party has been subjected to a nationwide state clampdown, with hundreds of workers and candidates arrested and released only after quitting the party or withdrawing from the election. The PTI alleges that tactics have been used to prevent their candidates from contesting the election.
Pakistan's history since 1947 has been riddled with the Army sidelining elected governments. Khan is jailed on corruption charges and is barred from standing. He is serving at least 14 years in prison, having been sentenced in three separate cases in the space of five days last week. He still faces over 140 charges in different cases.
The contest also involves the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) of Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, who has been declared as the party's prime minister face. Bilawal cast his vote in Nau Daero area of Sindh.
Sixty seats are reserved for women and another 10 for minorities, and are allotted to the winning parties based on proportional representation. Another 593 seats of the four provincial assemblies, out of a total 749, were open for contest but the ECP delayed polls on at least three seats, two in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and one in Punjab, after two candidates died and one was killed.
A total of 132 seats in the four provinces are reserved for women in four provinces and another 24 for minorities.
The reserved seats will be allotted to the winning political parties on the basis of the general seats they win in the elections. Both women and non-Muslim minorities can also contest on all general seats in addition to the reserved seats set aside for them in the national and provincial assemblies.
In the 2018 elections, overall voter turnout across the nation was 51.7 per cent.
Sharif's PML-N is a favourite to win the Punjab province and from the provincial government. The PPP is almost sure to win Sindh province.
The situation in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Balochistan remains fluid.
PTI won KP successively in the 2013 and 2018 elections but it faced wear and tear after the violence on May 9 last year following Khan's arrest and several prominent leaders parted ways with the party.
The dynamic of Balochistan, the largest province area-wise but sparsely populated, is different and traditionally it had been ruled by a coalition government of different parties.
Whoever wins the polls will find a daunting task ahead due to the dwindling economy and deteriorating security situation.
Last year, the country narrowly averted a default when the International Monetary Fund provided a USD 3 billion short-term loan.
Economic experts believe that the new government would need an urgent new IMF programme on more stringent conditions.
Pakistan's more than two-decades-old fight against terrorism is also unravelling as the rebels have resurged since 2021 after the Afghan Taliban came to power.
The new government will find it tougher to deal with the militancy by the banned Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan and Baloch nationalists.
With IANS inputs