ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Authorities in Pakistan announced a temporary nationwide suspension of mobile phone services on Thursday in an effort to boost security ahead of critical general elections taking place amid heightened terrorist threats and political tensions.
The decision came just a day after imprisoned former Prime Minister Imran Khan, the leading opposition figure, called on his supporters to stand vigil outside polling stations after voting to guard against potential vote rigging. Mr. Khan’s statement urging nationwide mobilization elevated fears of possible election-day clashes and violence.
“As a result of the recent incidents of terrorism in the country precious lives have been lost,” the Interior Ministry said in a statement. “Security measures are essential to maintain the law-and-order situation and deal with possible threats, hence the temporary suspension of mobile services across the country.”
The mobile internet blackout, scheduled to last from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. on election day, is intended to prevent the remote detonation of bombs and obstruct communications among militant groups planning attacks on the polls. But critics argued it could also be used by authorities to manipulate election results without scrutiny.
Up to 700,000 security personnel have been deployed at polling stations nationwide after a string of deadly attacks by the Pakistani Taliban and the Islamic State’s regional affiliate shook the country in recent months.
On Wednesday, two bomb blasts near election offices killed at least 26 people and wounded dozens more in restive Baluchistan Province. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for carrying out a coordinated assault on political parties in the southwestern region bordering Iran and Afghanistan.
Earlier this week, a Taliban suicide bomber struck inside a mosque in the northwestern city of Peshawar, killing 101 people in one of Pakistan’s deadliest extremist attacks in years.
The unprecedented security has turned voting day into a virtual lockdown of public spaces intended to deter violence and reassure Pakistanis about the integrity of a electoral process marred by accusations of military meddling. Armored vehicles patrolled deserted streets and citizens in major cities found roads blockaded.
“I have never seen such strict security measures,” said Ayesha Khan, a school teacher in the eastern city of Lahore. “The atmosphere is tense but I hope Pakistan can carry out free and fair elections without major disruptions.”
Analysts however said the tightened security presented opportunities for Pakistan’s powerful military establishment to manipulate results behind closed doors. Internet voting audits and parallel tabulations of ballots by independent monitoring groups have now become impossible.
“An information blackout of this scale on election day only benefits state authorities, not the voters,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center in Washington. “There are reasonable security justifications for this move, but there are also highly problematic implications for transparency around an important election.”
Ousted Leader Urges ‘Peaceful’ Show of Force
The elections represent only the second democratic transition of power in Pakistan’s history. The leading contenders include Shahbaz Sharif, 70, the younger brother of disgraced three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and head of the incumbent Pakistan Muslim League-N. His main challenger is the Oxford-educated former cricket star turned politician Imran Khan.
Although Mr. Khan’s political party defeated the Pakistan Muslim League at the polls in 2018, he lost a no-confidence vote in Parliament in April 2022 that resulted in his dramatic downfall. Mr. Sharif subsequently became Prime Minister for the fourth time but resigned in January to run for a renewed mandate from voters.
The Supreme Court disqualified Nawaz Sharif from holding office in 2017 over corruption allegations exposed in the Panama Papers financial scandal. He lived in self-imposed exile in London for medical treatment until being sentenced to prison in 2019.
From behind bars, the elder Sharif retains control over the family’s eponymous political party. But his brother Shahbaz has emerged as heir apparent and standard bearer of the Pakistan Muslim League’s ticketing and patronage network.
The Sharifs style themselves as experienced defenders of democracy but face accusations of graft and dynastic politics. Mr. Khan lambastes them as crooked members of an out-of-touch ruling elite subservient to Western powers. He markets his image as an incorruptible crusader against corruption.
Although polls indicate neck-and-neck competition, Pakistan’s military retains behind-the-scenes influence over matters of national security and foreign policy regardless of the election outcome. Rights activists accuse generals of covertly backing candidates by mobilizing intelligence and public sector resources to bolster preferred parties and pressure opponents.
Mr. Khan’s successful campaign to unseat the Sharif political dynasty in 2018 benefited from a tacit alignment with the security establishment. But military leaders eventually turned on him over ineffective governance and foreign policy blunders.
In calling for protests and vigils outside ballot counting centers, Mr. Khan sought to deploy masses of impassioned followers to demonstrate his popular support while guarding against another ticket back to power for the Sharif machine.
“I would appeal to the whole nation to act responsibly while casting their votes and securing ballots,” said Mr. Khan in an audio message circulated online from behind bars earlier this week.
His plea for organized pushback against alleged election meddling however stoked official fears of unrest and post-election instability. Authorities characterized the statement as illegal incitement and sedition.
Aides to the ex-premier, who has millions of ardent supporters across Pakistan, later clarified he only urged peaceful activism in defense of fair elections. But the controversy reflected political fault lines likely to destabilize any incoming administration lacking credibility with a skeptical public.
Observers expect a fractious parliamentary landscape to emerge from the polls without an obvious path for coalition builders to capture a majority of National Assembly seats.
Smaller provincial and religious parties — including the Pakistani Taliban militant outfit reconstituted as a political movement — could play kingmakers with leverage over crafting the next government.
Pakistan’s Nathaniel Persily, a constitutional law expert at Stanford University, said the likelihood of paralysis and turmoil stemming from an inconclusive result may tempt the military to exert pressure behind closed doors for a governance alliance that restores stability.
“If no party wins an outright majority, I’d expect the intelligence services to conduct backroom negotiations to ensure their preferred outcome emerges over time,” he said.
But engineered outcomes risk unleashing waves of protests by disenfranchised voters that may spiral beyond the capacity of security forces to manage. An eruption of sustained unrest in the streets could in turn prompt generals to consider more direct intervention in politics.
Pakistan has endured four overt military coups against elected governments since independence in 1947 along with decades of indirect army rule. After the last putsch in 1999, military commander Pervez Musharraf appointed himself president for nearly a decade.
But Pakistanis have shown themselves increasingly unwilling to tolerate long spells of army dictators subverting representative rule. Most analysts believe ascendency through the electoral process — facilitated by allies in khaki — represents the only viable path to power for ambitious politicians in contemporary Pakistan.
Yet an imperfect democratic transition after disputed elections on Wednesday could leave the legitimacy of a new civilian government in doubt, setting up an unstable political environment vulnerable to meddling by anti-democratic forces vowing to step in.
“If rigging allegations explode protests out of control, the military may once again exploit the crisis as pretext to directly seize the reins,” said Ayesha Siddiqa, author of a book examining military economic power titled “Military Inc.” inside Pakistan. “Democracy would suffer yet another blow.”
Some Pakistani voters remained defiant amid threats of terrorism and expectations of some degree of orchestration to shape the election outcome given the stark power imbalance between civilian leaders and military generals.
Mariam Chaudhry, a school teacher in the northern city of Rawalpindi, turned up early at a crowded polling station simply praying for peace.
“Every election faces controversy over fairness,” she said. “But ultimately the results reflect what the people want. Our leaders simply learn to live with them.”