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Pakistan’s Election Day Marred by Violence and Mobile Phone Service Suspension

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Pakistan suspended mobile phone services nationwide as voters in the world’s fifth most-populous nation headed to the polls for a tumultuous general election that’s been marred by violence and questions of impropriety.

A statement from the Ministry of Interior posted on X Thursday morning said in Urdu that, in response to “recent incidents of terrorism” in the country, cellular networks had been cut off “to maintain the law and order situation and deal with possible threats.” (More than two dozen people were killed in a pair of bombings on candidates’ offices in the southwestern region of Balochistan on Wednesday; the Islamic State claimed responsibility for those attacks.)

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Global online freedom watchdog NetBlocks said it detected internet blackouts in multiple regions across the country and that the disruptions follow “months of digital censorship targeting the political opposition.” Human rights advocacy organization Amnesty International described the shutdown as “a blunt attack on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.”

The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party lambasted the mobile service shutdown on X, calling it a “severe assault on democracy” and a “cowardly attempt by those in power to stifle dissent, manipulate the election’s outcome, and infringe upon the rights of the Pakistani people.” The party also urged people with WiFi to remove password protection on their personal network so that others in the vicinity could access the internet on polling day.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the Prime Minister candidate of the Pakistan People’s Party, urged on X that mobile phone services “be restored immediately across the country” and said his party would confront the Election Commission and the courts over the issue. The Interior ministry said the suspension of services would be temporary and started to lift it in some parts by late Thursday, after the polls had closed.

Polls opened at 8 a.m. local time, and the Election Commission said in a press release hours after the mobile services suspension that its monitoring was fully operational and that the polling process was “going on peacefully” with “no complaints from anywhere.”

But that did not last long, as the military and local police reported over 50 attacks on Election Day that killed 12 and injured 39 in various parts of the country, according to the Associated Press. It’s unclear yet how many of the country’s 128 million eligible voters turned out.

About 650,000 security personnel were deployed to try to ensure a peaceful process, with the country also closing its borders with Iran and Afghanistan as an added security measure. But violence aside, the election was already hardly free or fair.

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Pakistan’s most popular politician, former Prime Minister Imran Khan, has been jailed and barred from the ballot, and his PTI party has been systematically cracked down on by the country’s military kingmakers, paving the way for an expected victory for former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. However, results—originally due early Friday—were delayed amid initial counts in some parts showing surprising success for Khan’s PTI party and its affiliates, despite the cards being stacked against them.

The election comes at a critical time for the South Asian country of some 243 million people, which on top of its political unrest struggles with an ongoing economic crisis.

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