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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, as a paramilitary soldier was killed in firing at a polling station.

Attacks by religiously motivated militant groups like the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) 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, the first reports of violence began to emerge as a paramilitary soldier was killed in firing 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,” the Pakistani interior ministry said on Thursday morning, barely minutes before voting opened at 8am.

“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. “We can give our recommendations but we can’t interfere.”

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.”

‘PATTERN IS NOT NEW’

The mobile phone network suspension comes as widespread allegations of manipulation and pre-poll rigging have cast a shadow over the general election, a historic event that will mark only the country’s third ever democratic transition of power.

Tensions between civilian politicians, particularly from the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party of jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan, and the powerful military, which has ruled for over three decades of Pakistan’s history since independence in 1947, are running high as millions of Pakistanis go out to vote. The military strongly denies interfering in politics.

Khan was ousted from the PM’s office by a parliamentary vote of no-confidence in April 2022 and has been in jail since August last year, angering his millions of supporters. He is also disqualified from running for public office for ten years.

Khan was handed down three different jail sentences this month and faces dozens of other legal challenges, including one case in which he is accused of ordering violent attacks on military installations on May 9, 2023, which could entail the death sentence.

In the run-up to polls, Khan’s PTI has complained of a widening crackdown against the party, including not being allowed to campaign freely, and questions surround the legitimacy of an election that Khan, the main opposition leader and arguably the country’s most popular politician, cannot contest.

“The upcoming government and parliament will have questions over its legitimacy due to severe allegations of the pre-poll rigging,” political commentator Zebunnisa Burki told Arab News. “One can only hope at this stage the new government will work for the restoration of political and economic stability in the country.”

Khan’s main challenge is expected to come from the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (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 national elections.

In the last election in 2018, it was Sharif’s PML-N that widely complained of rigging and manipulation. A year earlier, Sharif had been ousted by the Supreme Court as prime minister and disqualified for life from running for public office. He later left for the United Kingdom after being granted medical bail and declined to return.

But as he came back to Pakistan in October last year, corruption cases against him were dropped and the bar to contest polls was lifted and Sharif is now being seen as the frontrunner in elections, with an edge over rivals due to the backing of the military.

Sharif has denied the generals have thrown their weight behind him.

“Each time, one party or another has been targeted as the party that must be kept out of power and this time that party is PTI,” Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States and currently a scholar at Washington’s Hudson Institute, told Arab News. “The military usually proceeds by defining an enemy and that enemy right now is Imran Khan.”

“The pattern is not new nor are the [security] establishment’s tactics,” he said, adding that the PTI’s vast social media presence and the celebrity status of its leader were amplifying the controversy more than in the past.

“Pakistan seems stuck with the hybrid model of partial democracy and military intervention. That will not change with this election. The only issue is whether Imran Khan’s popularity will dent the next hybrid regime’s ability to function effectively,” Haqqani added.

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 and intimidation taking place.

“In the past, it used to be very subtle,” he told Arab News. “But this is unprecedented, at this level, so intense and widespread rigging, Pakistan’s establishment has broken its record.”

He cited the example of the election regulator’s move to strip Khan’s PTI of its unifying election symbol of the bat, which not only forced hundreds of its candidates to contest 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. And what did it say about the fairness of the election, he added, when hundreds of PTI candidates were forced underground at the time of the submission of nomination papers in December and as the party’s top leadership remained behind bars, facing hundreds of cases.

“I have been saying that this election is neither free nor fair,” Bari said, “but it is an absolutely transparent election because whatever is happening is happening in the clear light of day.”

The election also comes at a time of growing economic instability, with the economy 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 (IMF) approved last year.

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