On Thursday, Pakistan’s 127 million voters went to the polls under internet outages and terrorist attacks. The country’s 12th election, overshadowed by economic crises, military coups, martial law, terrorist attacks, political turmoil, and wars with India in its 76-year history, was held.
Just before the elections, two political offices were bombed, killing at least 30 people. The country, with a population of 240 million and approximately 128 million registered voters, went to the polls for general elections in which numerous political parties, including the party of imprisoned former Prime Minister Imran Khan, competed. A total of 44 political parties competed for 266 seats, including 70 seats reserved for women and minorities.
The ballot featured two former prime ministers, Nawaz Sharif and his younger brother Shahbaz Sharif, representing the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). Allies under the leadership of Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, a member of a political dynasty from the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), may not secure enough votes for the premiership but could be part of a potential coalition government led by Sharif. The imprisonment of Imran Khan, the legendary cricket captain and founder of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), and his absence from the ballot make these elections even more controversial.
Corruption allegations and cases in Pakistan’s history have prevented prime ministers from completing their terms in office. Many leaders were either arrested, assassinated, or removed from office. The cases against Khan are unprecedented in the country’s history. He has been banned from participating in elections or holding public office due to four convictions and has been sentenced to years in prison, with over 150 cases pending against him.
A Dark Stain on Democracy Another issue overshadowing the elections was the internet shutdown on election day. The Ministry of the Interior announced the suspension of mobile phone services as a result of violent incidents. This decision was criticized by many. As voters headed to the polls in elections long overshadowed by military intervention, terrorist attacks, and the imprisonment of the country’s popular political figure Imran Khan, authorities were protested for shutting down the country’s internet services.
The suspension of telecommunications and mobile internet services on election day in the world’s fifth most populous country shares the same tragedy as a cat entering a transformer in Turkey or Ilham Aliyev being elected leader with a record 90% in Azerbaijan.
The government’s only explanation for shutting down the internet on voting day is that it tarnishes the voting process and democracy. There had been continuous rumors about internet access prior to and on election day. The fact that social media platforms were blocked at least six times last year and the lack of transparency regarding the timing, duration, and nature of these interruptions confirms this uncertainty. Independent internet access unfortunately taints the voting process and democracy.
Shutting off the internet valve is a disproportionate form of collective punishment that violates freedom of expression and press and the right to information. These interruptions affect the fundamental right to vote, a cornerstone of democracy.
No Chance for Fair Elections The newly elected government will have a long to-do list, including revisiting relations with the military, stabilizing the economy, managing relations with Taliban-led Afghanistan and neighboring India, controlling religious and separatist militant groups, and addressing the country’s collapsing infrastructure and power outages.
There is no chance for the Pakistan elections to be free or fair. All political farces since Khan’s overthrow in 2022 are typical of third-world country elections, leading to voter apathy and questioning the election’s credibility. While the PML-N leader at the polls said, “We have made many sacrifices to witness this point today,” it is unclear whether he referred only to his exile or the sacrifices behind the dubious elections.
As votes are counted amidst attacks by armed gangs, mobile phone, and internet outages, the Election Commission has yet to announce official results. However, initial reports from local media indicate that candidates affiliated with the imprisoned former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s party are leading. According to the military, at least 12 people were killed and 39 injured nationwide in attacks aimed at disrupting the voting process.
Hopefully, these election results will open the door to a future in Pakistan where the internet and communication are never cut off, terrorism does not roam freely, and political leaders are not thrown into jail.