Islamabad: Counting of votes began in Pakistan following conclusion of the polling on Thursday in an election marred by crackdown on jailed ex-prime minister Imran Khan’s party, sporadic violence and connectivity issues after the government suspended mobile and internet services to foil suspected terror attacks.
The polling started at 8.00 AM and continued without any break till 5.00 PM. A countrywide public holiday was declared to enable more than 12 crore voters to cast their ballots. The time for voting ended but the people present inside the premises of the polling stations were allowed to cast their votes. The polling percentage is not yet known.
The results of individual polling stations have started to pour in from across the country after the mandatory one hour restriction elapsed. But it may take a couple of hours before the complete result of any constituency is available.
In total 266 National Assembly 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. Another 60 seats are reserved for women and 10 for minorities, and are allotted to the winning parties based on proportional representation.
A party must win 133 seats out of 265 being contested to form the next government.
Nawaz Sharif, the 74-year-old three-time former premier who is eying the premiership for a record fourth term, has expressed confidence that his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party would win elections.
The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) said it has resolved 76 poll-related complaints, which were received throughout the day.
According to the ECP spokesperson Haroon Shinwari, most of the complaints were of a “normal nature” involving confrontations between political workers in different areas which were resolved on the spot.
Soon after the voting started, mobile services in Pakistan were suspended due to the “deteriorating security situation”, a day after twin terror attacks killed at least 30 people in Balochistan province.
Despite the suspension of cellular and internet services, a large number of people across Pakistan exercised their right to vote to elect lawmakers for national and provincial assemblies – on 855 constituencies.
Amnesty International criticised the decision to suspend mobile phone and internet service on the day of election, calling it “a blunt attack on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly”.
“Amnesty International calls on the Pakistan authorities to urgently lift the blanket restrictions on access to the internet,” it said in a statement on X.
There were reports of the voting process facing delays at certain polling stations across the country.
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.
Nearly 650,000 security personnel have been deployed across the country to conduct peaceful elections.
With former prime minister Imran Khan in jail, Sharif’s PML-N is tipped to emerge as the single largest party in the elections.
Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (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’.
“Make sure you come out and Vote in huge numbers tomorrow,” Khan was quoted as saying in a video posted on his X handle on Wednesday.
Khan, 71, and other prominent incarcerated political figures have cast their votes through a postal ballot from Adiala Jail.
Caretaker Prime Minister Anwaarul Haq Kakar has congratulated the nation on what he called “successful conduct” of “free and fair” elections.
“I appreciate the efforts of the Election Commission of Pakistan, Interim Provincial Governments, Armed Forces, Civil Armed Forces, Police, law enforcement agencies, election staff, media and all those institutions and individuals who contributed to the conduct of the free and fair elections,” he said in a post on X.
Kakar said the high voter turnout is a clear indication of public commitment to shaping the future of the country. “The voices, expressed through the votes, will contribute to the fortification of our democracy, and for that, people of Pakistan deserve every bit of appreciation,” he added.
The border crossing with Afghanistan and Iran will also remain closed both for cargo and pedestrians on Thursday due to security reasons.
Pakistan’s Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Sikandar Sultan Raja earlier said that elections will be held in a peaceful atmosphere.
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.
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.
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.
In the 2018 elections, overall voter turnout across the nation was 51.7 per cent.
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.