• Reuters

Pakistan Vote Results Trickle in after Election Marred by Attacks, Outages

REUTERS/Fayaz Aziz
Members of Frontier Constabulary in riot gear stand guard outside a vote counting center a day after the general election, in Peshawar, Pakistan February 9, 2024.

ISLAMABAD, Feb 9 (Reuters) – Former Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s party was slightly ahead in early election results on Friday, after vote counts were hit by unusual delays that the government ascribed to a suspension of mobile phone services.

By 0600 GMT, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) had announced 47 results for the 265 contested seats in the National Assembly, with Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) winning 17 and supporters of jailed former prime minister Imran Khan 14.

Twelve seats were taken by the Pakistan Peoples Party of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of assassinated premier Benazir Bhutto, it said. The rest were won by small parties or non-aligned independents.

Khan is in jail and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party was barred from Thursday’s election, so his supporters contested as independents.

Analysts have predicted there may be no clear winner in the election, adding to the woes of a country struggling to recover from an economic crisis while it grapples with rising militant violence in a deeply polarized political environment.

Few results had been announced over 18 hours after the polls closed, unusual for elections in Pakistan. Karachi’s stock index and Pakistan’s sovereign bonds fell because of the uncertainty.

An “internet issue” was the reason behind the delay, Zafar Iqbal, special secretary at the ECP, said without elaborating.

The government said it suspended mobile phone services ahead of the election on Thursday as a security measure, and they were being partially restored.

The main battle was expected to be between candidates backed by Khan, whose PTI won the last national election, and the PML-N of Sharif. Khan believes the powerful military is behind a crackdown to hound his party out of existence, while analysts and opponents say Sharif is being backed by the generals.

The military has dominated the nuclear-armed country either directly or indirectly in its 76 years of independence but for several years it has maintained it does not interfere in politics.

Sharif, considered by many observers to be a strong candidate, dismissed talk of an unclear result.

“Don’t talk about a coalition government. It is very important for a government to get a clear majority… It should not be relying on others,” he told reporters on Thursday after casting his vote in the eastern city of Lahore.

IMF BAILOUT

If the election does not result in a clear majority for anyone, as analysts are predicting, tackling multiple challenges will be tricky – foremost being seeking a new bailout program from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) after the current arrangement expires in three weeks.

“The deciding factor is which side the powerful military and its security agencies are on,” said Abbas Nasir, a columnist, commenting on the likelihood that no party would emerge as a clear winner. “Only a huge turnout in favor of (Khan’s) PTI can change its fortunes.”

He added: “Economic challenges are so serious, grave, and the solutions so very painful that I am unsure how anyone who comes to power will steady the ship.”

Thousands of troops were deployed on the streets and at polling stations across the country for the voting on Thursday. Borders with Iran and Afghanistan were temporarily closed as security was stepped up.

Despite the heightened security, 12 people, including two children, were killed in 51 bomb blasts, grenade attacks and shootings by militants, mostly in the western provinces, the military said in a statement.

“Despite a few isolated incidents, the overall situation remained under control, demonstrating the effectiveness of our security measures,” caretaker Interior Minister Gohar Ejaz said in a statement.

Washington was concerned about “steps that were taken to restrict freedom of expression, specifically around internet and cellphone use,” State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel told reporters.

The U.S. strongly condemned election-related violence both in the run-up to the polls and on election day, Patel added.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also expressed concern about the violence and the suspension of mobile communications services, his spokesperson said in an e-mailed statement.

Amnesty International called the suspension of mobile services “a blunt attack on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.”