Pakistan has temporarily suspended mobile phone services nationwide as voters in the fifth most-populous nation in the world head to the polls for a tumultuous general election.
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.” The opposition 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.
Polls opened at 8 a.m. local time, and are set to close at 5 p.m. (7 a.m. Eastern). The Election Commission said in a press release hours after the mobile services suspension that its monitoring remains fully operational and that the polling process is “going on peacefully” with “no complaints from anywhere.”
Some 128 million Pakistanis are registered to vote, and about 650,000 security personnel have been deployed to ensure a peaceful process, with the country also closing its borders with Iran and Afghanistan as an added security measure. But the election, already marred by violence, is 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.
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. Results are expected Friday.