Pakistan voting ends; results expected soon amid charges of manipulation

Bomb blasts and the suspension of mobile services mar Pakistan’s election. Results could start coming in within hours.

Voters in Lahore cast their ballots as Pakistan holds its general election on February 8, 2024By Abid HussainPublished On 8 Feb 20248 Feb 2024

Lahore, Pakistan – After raucous protests charging pre-poll manipulation, a mobile service suspension and bomb blasts that killed at least nine people, Pakistan’s 12th general election was declared closed.

The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) said ballot counting started soon after the closure of the polls on Thursday evening. The results are expected to start trickling in during the night.

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Long queues outside polling stations in Pakistan

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Three-time former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) is considered the frontrunner.

Sharif spoke to the media after casting his vote, declaring he never had any problems with the Pakistani military, the primary powerbroker in the country, with whom he has had major differences in the past.

His path to another potential premiership was cleared after his chief political rival, ex-Prime Minister Imran Khan, was barred from participating in the election due to a conviction in a corruption case.

Khan is currently in jail serving multiple sentences for a range of convictions but had urged his voters to ensure that they came out on election day.

Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) also had its party symbol taken away by the ECP, but it still managed to put up independent candidates in a coordinated campaign.

Earlier in the day, former Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) cast his vote in the province of Sindh, where the PPP is particularly strong. The PPP will hope it can spring a surprise and upset predictions by emerging victorious.

Before the voting started at 8am (03:00 GMT), the government announced the suspension of mobile services across the country, citing security concerns.

Yet there were multiple bomb blasts during the day, which killed at least nine people in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the southwestern province of Balochistan.

This followed two bomb blasts in Balochistan on Wednesday at election offices of two candidates, which resulted in the deaths of at least 27 people.

After the closure of the polls, interim Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar said in a statement that the elections were a “momentous occasion”.

Kakar also praised the enthusiasm of the people of Pakistan and expressed appreciation for their participation in the polling process. “The high voter turnout is a clear indication of public commitment to shaping the future of our country,” he said. However, reports emerged from across the country that voter turnout had been subdued during the day.

Pakistan historically has seen low voter turnout in elections. Since 1985, it has exceeded 50 percent only twice: in 2013 (54 percent) and 2018 (51 percent).

Of the 128 million people registered to vote this year, more than 45 percent of them are between the ages of 18 and 35. According to election statistics, from 1997 onwards, the voter turnout of those aged 18 to 30 never surpassed 40 percent, reaching a high of 37 percent in 2018.

When polling started in Pakistan on Thursday morning, all eyes were on PTI supporters. With a state crackdown on the party since May and now the imprisonment of Khan, the party’s supporters had vowed to respond through their votes.

However, at more than a dozen polling stations that Al Jazeera visited until 3pm, mostly in Lahore’s middle-income and working-class localities, voter enthusiasm appeared lacklustre. In one polling station in the Mochi Gate area where nearly 1,400 voters were registered, fewer than 250 had shown up.

“I have done election duties in the past, and it was never so dismal,” ECP official Mohammed Ashfaq told Al Jazeera.

Several complaints emerged from Karachi, the largest city in the country, where voters alleged that polling staff at various polling stations were absent and in many places voting did not begin on time, starting as late as 3pm (10:00 GMT).

“This is my third attempt to vote today. I came in the morning. There was no one here. All the rooms were empty. I came earlier in the afternoon, and the rooms were empty and polling booths weren’t set up. People were running back and forth trying to figure out which room to go to. It’s been a nightmare,” Elhaam Shaikh, 35, told Al Jazeera.

While the ECP has barred exit polls in the country, the voters Al Jazeera spoke to appeared to be split between the PTI and PML-N.

Ayesha Siddiqua, a teacher in Lahore, said she had been a lifelong Imran Khan fan and would vote for him regardless of what other parties have to offer.

“I have been following him since his cricket days and then the cancer hospital he built,” she told Al Jazeera after casting her vote in Lahore. “For me, he can do no wrong.” Khan built a cancer hospital in Lahore in 1994 named after his mother, who had died of the disease in 1985.

Another voter, Khalid Taimur, a tour guide in Lahore, said his vote was reserved for the PML-N supremo.

“Nawaz Sharif gave us roads, buses, trains. He gave us infrastructure projects that helped the life of common people. His legacy is his work, which speaks for itself,” the 52-year-old told Al Jazeera after voting.

In Balochistan, voter turnout for women remained low compared with the rest of the country. Tribal traditions in the province often serve as a deterrent to women moving about in public.

Pakistan’s election body said that if the total female turnout in any constituency was less than 10 percent of the total votes, it might order fresh voting there.

“If the total female voters’ count in a constituency remains below 10% of the total votes cast, the Election Commission of Pakistan, as per law, can void the voting in that constituency and order for re-polling,” the electoral watchdog said in a message on X, formerly known as Twitter, a day before the elections.

Muteeba Naz, 21, came to cast her first-ever ballot in Quetta, Balochistan’s capital. “The next government’s priority should be inflation and terrorism because yesterday, over two dozen people were killed in Balochistan,” she told Al Jazeera.

With the country dealing with an economy in crisis as well as a volatile security situation with more than 1,000 people dying last year in attacks, many Pakistanis view the elections with hope that they will produce a government capable of bringing some stability to the nation of 241 million people.

But analysts have warned that the next government may struggle to gain legitimacy because of the targeting of Khan. And without the trust of Pakistan’s people, they cautioned, the next prime minister may struggle to take steps to help the country fight its myriad challenges.

With additional reporting from Alia Chughtai in Karachi, Saadullah Akhter in Quetta and Islam Gul Afridi in Peshawar.

Source: Al Jazeera