Uncertainty Looms in Pakistan After Election Day Marred by Cellular Blackout

Voters turned out in millions for a pivotal election, only to face unexpected communication shutdowns that raise questions about transparency and fairness and that could affect the outcome

By Arshad Mehmood/The Media Line

[Islamabad] Pakistan’s 2024 elections unfolded with intense anticipation, marred by a renewed suspension of cellular services after a brief resumption, casting a shadow over the democratic process.

On February 8, millions of Pakistanis voted for their representatives in the four provincial assemblies and the 16th National Assembly. However, as the polls closed at 5 pm, the anticipation for complete results turned into concern due to the Election Commission’s silence on the prolonged delay in announcing outcomes.

Approximately 129 million Pakistanis were expected to vote at 90,000 polling stations nationwide.

To maintain peace on Election Day, 596,618 army, paramilitary, and police personnel were deployed across the country.

There are contests for 266 National Assembly seats and 571 seats in the four provincial assemblies, governing Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the Punjab, and Sindh.

Early reports suggest that independent candidates affiliated with Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) are leading, with Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League and the People’s Party trailing behind. This preliminary indication, derived from about 30% of the unofficial results, is contested by the Election Commission’s caution against relying on TV-reported figures, promising to release official results themselves.

Amid this uncertainty, PTI spokesperson Rauf Hassan expressed confidence in PTI’s lead and cautioned against any result tampering.

In a video statement on X, Hassan said, “The official preliminary results clearly show Tehreek-e-Insaf leading by a wide margin in 125 seats. This means that we will eventually be able to form governments in the capital and two or more of the four provinces.”

Pakistan’s general elections took place during a period of a struggling economy, record-high inflation, declining foreign exchange reserves, a weakening currency, and a rise in extremism.

Despite prior assurances from the Interior Ministry and the Pakistan Telecom Authority, a sweeping suspension of internet and cellular services took the country by surprise on election day. This move, explained as a necessary security measure following recent terrorist attacks, contradicted promises made just a day before the election, sparking widespread criticism from political parties, voters, and international observers alike.

The suspension’s impact was profound, affecting not only the PTI’s digitally driven campaign strategy but also the electorate’s ability to access crucial voting information. This digital blackout, alongside a Supreme Court decision affecting PTI’s election symbol, highlighted the challenges of conducting an election in a country with an illiteracy rate of nearly 40%.

Azhar Mishwani, the social media focal person for the PTI, told The Media Line, “The intention behind halting internet and cell service was to conceal election tampering. Since we entirely depended on internet services for our election campaign, the party alleges that the suspension of mobile service is just one more way to harm our victory.”

Mishwani further said, “Since our candidates are running independently under a different electoral symbol, PTI’s election campaign relied entirely on mobile apps, internet, and social media to adequately inform voters.”

Notably, “a Supreme Court ruling deprived PTI of its ‘cricket bat’ election symbol, a nod to the sports career of charismatic cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan. Consequently, Tehreek-e-Insaf candidates were required to run independently and were given distinct electoral symbols in every constituency across the nation.”

Since the ballot papers displayed symbols associated with different parties, many illiterate voters remained confused about the actual election symbol of their preferred candidate.

On Wednesday, a day before the election, at least 28 people were killed and 50 injured in twin blasts in the southern restive regions of Baluchistan.

During Thursday’s general elections, Pakistan shut its borders with neighboring Iran and Afghanistan.

“Border crossings with Afghanistan and Iran will be closed to both cargo and pedestrians on Feb. 8 to ensure election security,” announced Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mumtaz Zahra Baloch on Wednesday.

She added that normal border crossing operations would resume on Friday.

As Pakistan navigated these hurdles, the international community watched closely.

US Congressman Greg Casar (D-Texas) said on his X account that Pakistanis have the right to elect their leaders without cellphone service shutdowns and other authoritarian practices aimed at undermining election results. “The US must stand with the Pakistani people & make clear we will not support anyone working to undermine democracy,” he wrote.

Organizations like Amnesty International voiced strong opposition to the communication blackout, emphasizing the right to free and fair elections. Describing it as a “blunt infringement on people’s rights,” Amnesty International denounced the internet blackout, declaring in a Thursday statement that “it is reckless to impede access to information as people head out to polling stations on the heels of devastating bomb blasts and what has been an intense crackdown on the opposition in the lead-up to the elections in the country.”

“Blanket shutdowns impact people’s mobility, livelihood, and ability to navigate through a difficult time, further undermining their trust in authorities,” the human rights watchdog said.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) and the #KeepItOn coalition echoed these concerns, stressing the importance of uninterrupted internet service for a transparent electoral process.

HRCP denounced the disruption of internet and cellular services, saying that “the service disruption occurred despite the Sindh High Court’s instructions to the caretaker administration for continuous internet services on Election Day.”

The #KeepItOn coalition, Access Now, and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) vehemently denounced the caretaker government’s decision to halt mobile services nationwide, calling in a joint statement for the immediate restoration of full internet access.

“The government’s excessive actions endanger democracy in Pakistan, where millions depend on the internet for essential information to cast their ballots,” the statement said, adding, “The freedom of people to freely and fairly choose their elected representatives must be preserved.”

Umar Karim is a researcher in the Department of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Birmingham in the UK and as a Project Fellow at Lancaster University’s Richardson Institute.

Reflecting on the day’s events, Karim told The Media Line, “The suspension of mobile internet services dampened voter turnout, and while the overall voting process was slow, the situation remains closely contested, far from an easy victory for Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (N).”

Karim observed, “Imran Khan’s incarceration has nonetheless been enough to maintain the enthusiasm of his supporters and the significance of his political party.”

Responding to a question from The Media Line, Karim remarked, “The turnout might have been higher had the mobile internet not been suspended. Fortunately, the overall low level of violence is a net positive.”

Karim added, “Voters throughout Pakistan have demonstrated remarkable enthusiasm and interest in the electoral process. Clearly, certain segments of the electorate were especially eager to vote and to transform Pakistan’s current political landscape through their votes. This indicates that, despite widespread negativity, the Pakistani populace continues to have faith in the electoral process.”

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