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Pakistan Disrupts Mobile and Internet Services on Election Day


ISLAMABAD — Pakistan disrupted mobile phone and internet services nationwide on election day Thursday as voters cast their ballots in the already controversial parliamentary polls.

An early morning Interior Ministry announcement just before polling centers opened for some 128 million eligible voters said that the disruption in phone services was meant to “mitigate potential security threats” and “maintain law and order.” It did not discuss the internet outages.

The disruptions came after two separate bomb blasts outside campaign offices in southwestern Baluchistan province on Wednesday killed 30 people, with the Islamic State militant group claiming the bombings.

The government has deployed more than 650,000 army, paramilitary, and police personnel to provide security for tens of thousands of polling stations across the world’s fifth-most populous country, with an estimated population of 241 million.

But the suspension of phone and internet services sparked widespread allegations that it was yet another attempt by Pakistan’s military-backed interim government to rig the polls, mainly to restrict candidates loyal to jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s party from gaining an upper hand.

NetBlocks, an independent watchdog monitoring global cybersecurity and internet governance, confirmed the suspension of communication services nationwide.

“Real-time network data show that internet blackouts are now in effect in multiple regions of #Pakistan in addition to mobile network disruptions; the incident comes on election day and follows months of digital censorship targeting the political opposition,” the watchdog said.

Khan, the 71-year-old most popular national politician, has been convicted and sentenced to lengthy prison terms for highly disputed corruption and other charges in the lead-up to the vote.

The cricket hero-turned-politician’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or PTI, party has been subjected to months of nationwide state clampdown, with hundreds of workers and candidates arrested without charges and released only after quitting the party or withdrawing from the election.

“Pakistanis, the illegitimate, fascist regime has blocked cell phone services across Pakistan on polling day. You are all requested to counter this cowardly act by removing passwords from your personal WiFi accounts, so anyone in the vicinity can have access to the internet on this extremely important day,” said PTI announcement on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Observers noted that Pakistan had previously held elections under greater security challenges and terrorism threats but it had not cut communication services.

“Shutting down mobile networks on polling day is the beginning of election day rigging,” said Mustafa Nawaz Khokar, an independent candidate for the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, in Islamabad.

“Cutting candidates off from their agents and staff on election day is unacceptable. How’s one supposed to keep a check and highlight any irregularity? By the time news comes out election would have been stolen,” Khokar wrote on X.

With Khan sidelined from the race, analysts said the military-favored Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, or PML-N, is expected to emerge the winner in Thursday’s vote, enabling its 74-year-old leader, three-time former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, to return to power.

The U.S.-based Gallup polling company found in a survey on the eve of the elections that more than two-thirds of Pakistanis “lack confidence in the honesty of their elections.”

Gallup researchers said the state crackdown on PTI had been met with “palpable public anger” and discontent, and discontent reached a record high before the vote.