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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - ISLAMABAD: The Pakistan government on Thursday cut mobile phone services across the country as millions went out to vote in a closely-watched general election amid multiple crises, including a surge in militancy, with a paramilitary soldier shot and killed at a polling station.
Attacks by militant groups including the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and ethno-nationalist Baloch insurgents have surged in the run-up to elections in the nuclear-armed, South Asian nation of 241 million. On Wednesday, a day before polls opened, at least 28 people were killed and over 40 injured in violence in the southern regions of Pakistan, including two separate blasts targeting election offices in Balochistan province.
On Thursday morning, a paramilitary soldier was shot and killed by unidentified gunmen at a polling station in Tank in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The target was a Frontier Corps security party, police said.
“As a result of the recent incidents of terrorism in the country, precious lives have been lost, (so) security measures are essential to maintain the law-and-order situation and deal with possible threats,” Pakistan’s Interior Ministry said on Thursday morning, barely minutes before voting opened at 8 a.m. “Hence the decision has been made to temporarily suspend mobile services across the country.”
“There were two unfortunate attacks in Balochistan (on Wednesday) in which there were a lot of deaths, so this (mobile suspension) is the decision of the law enforcement agencies,” Chief Election Commissioner Sikandar Sultan Raja told reporters on Thursday morning ahead of voting.
Raja said the election commission was “fully ready” for the vote and security arrangements had been completed. “And we are confident and Allah is with us that elections will be free and fair and voters will be able to vote freely for their candidates of choice.”
The mobile phone network suspension comes as allegations of widespread manipulation have cast a shadow over the general election, a historic event that will mark only the country’s third democratic transition of power.
Tensions have risen, particularly between the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or PTI, party of jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan, and the powerful military — which has ruled for over three decades since independence in 1947. The military denies interfering in politics.
Khan was ousted as prime minister by a parliamentary vote of no-confidence in April 2022 and has been in jail since August last year. He is also disqualified from running for public office for 10 years.
The PTI’s main challenge is expected to come from the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, or PML-N, party led by three-time former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who returned to Pakistan last year from self-imposed exile to lead the party ahead of the national elections.
Sarwar Bari, national coordinator at the not-for-profit Pattan Development Organization, said the 2024 election was peculiar in the “very transparent” nature of the manipulation. “In the past, it used to be very subtle,” he told Arab News.
He cited the example of the election regulator’s move to strip Khan’s PTI of its unifying election symbol off the bat. This not only forced hundreds of its candidates to contest the polls as independents, each with their own symbol, but will also deprive the party of reserved seats for women and minorities, which are allocated on the basis of the number of general seats won by a party in an election.
In Pakistan, election symbols appear on ballot papers, with voters able to put a stamp on their symbol of choice. The ballot paper also has names, but over 40 percent of Pakistan’s population is illiterate, making the pictures more important for recognition.
With so many different symbols for PTI-backed independent candidates, Bari said, a large number of people, especially women and rural constituents, would not be able to correctly identify their favorite candidate on the ballot paper.
The election also comes at a time of growing economic instability. The economy is beset by record-high inflation, falling foreign exchange reserves, a depreciating currency, low consumer confidence and slow growth caused by tough reforms carried out to meet the conditions of a last-gasp $3 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund which was approved last year.
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