Violence mars Pakistan polls, 5 cops killed in militant attacks

At least four police officials were killed and six others injured in a bomb attack on a police vehicle in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa

Islamabad: At least five policemen were killed and six others injured in militant attacks in Pakistan, where polling for general elections is underway on Thursday.

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At least four police officials were killed and six others injured in a bomb attack on a police vehicle in Graha Aslam polling station in Dera Ismail Khan district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, The Express Tribune reported.

A security officer was killed in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province’s Tank district in Pakistan on Thursday where polling is underway to elect the new government, local media reported.

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The security officer was killed after after gunmen opened fire at a security forces vehicle, Khyber news reported.

Tens of thousands of security personnel have been deployed at polling stations to ensure security.

On the poll eve, twin terrorist attacks rocked Pishin and Qilla Saifullah in Balochistan province leading to stepped-up security amid a spree of violence with the latest being two devastating bomb blasts targeting election offices on Wednesday in the restive Balochistan province that saw at least 30 people killed and more than 40 others injured.

Nearly 650,000 security personnel have been deployed across the country as authorities were busy setting up polling stations to enable more than 12.85 crore registered voters to cast their ballot in the general elections.

Internet has also been suspended across the country in what the government has described as a “security measure”.

Caretaker Federal Minister for Information Murtaza Solangi and Pakistan Muslim League (N) (PML-N) chief Shehbaz Sharif were among the early voters.

The country’s border with Iran and Afghanistan have been sealed for the polling day to ensure security.

The front-runner in the elections is former prime minister Nawaz Sharif who is believed to have the backing of the powerful military.

With former prime minister Imran Khan in jail, Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) is tipped to emerge as the single largest party in the elections.

Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) candidates are contesting the polls independently after the Supreme Court upheld the decision of the election commission to deprive his party of its iconic election symbol cricket ‘bat’.

Sharif, 74, will be eying the premiership for a record fourth time in Thursday’s election.

The contest also involves the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) of Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, who has been declared as the party’s prime minister face.

The Election Commission of Pakistan had issued a schedule in December last year to hold the polls and kept the process intact despite deteriorating security situation.

On Wednesday, election material was shifted to more than 90,000 polling stations under the supervision of respective polling officers who were escorted by police and army soldiers.

Voting underway

Punjab has the most number of 73, 207,896 registered voters followed by Sindh with 26,994,769, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa with 21,928,119, Balochistan with 5,371,947 and Federal Capital Islamabad 1,083,029.

According to ECP, a total of 5,121 candidates are in the race for the National Assembly (NA) seats. These include 4807 male, 312 female and two transgenders. For the four provincial assemblies, 12,695 candidates are in the field including 12,123 male, 570 women and two transgenders.

In total 266 NA seats were up for grabs out of 336, but polling was postponed on at least one seat after a candidate was killed in a gun attack in Bajaur. Sixty seats are reserved for women and another 10 for minorities, and are allotted to the winning parties on the basis of proportional representation.

Another 593 seats of the four provincial assemblies, out of total 749, were open for contest but the ECP delayed polls on at least three seats, two in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and one in Punjab, after two candidates died and one was killed.

A total of 132 seats in the four provinces are reserved for women in four provinces and another 24 for minorities. The reserved seats will be allotted to the winning political parties on the basis of general seats they win in the elections. Both women and non-Muslim minorities can also contest on all general seats in addition to the reserved seats set aside for them in the national and provincial assemblies.

The ECP set up 90,7675 polling stations nationwide, including 25,320 for male voters, 23952 for females and another 41,403 as mixed polling stations. It said that 44,000 polling stations were normal while 29,985 were declared as sensitive, and 16,766 as highly sensitive.

Security issues ahead of polls in Pakistan

Elaborate security measures have been taken with deployment of police, paramilitary forces personnel and regular army troops to provide security due to threat of attacks by the militants groups.

Though the incidents of violence in Pakistan’s financial capital Karachi have not been at the scale witnessed in Balochistan province in the run-up to the elections, yet there is fear of violence breaking out and even terror attacks in some areas where polling stations have been deemed as “sensitive.”

Opposing parties have had regular clashes in the campaigning and with pre-election surveys and opinion polls pointing towards unexpected results in many constituencies there is a worry of more clashes.

Voting pattern in Pakistan over the years

Karachi has 22 national assembly and 47 provincial assembly seats up for grabs in the southern Sindh province and for years the Pakistan People’s Party and notably Muttahida Qaumi Movement have dominated the political landscape of the city even when other parties ruled at the centre.

The MQM has been a dominant force in the elections in Karachi since 1988 and usually end up becoming coalition partners with the ruling party.

Some political analysts, television commentators and opinion polls have indicated that the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) one of the oldest politico-religious parties in Pakistan might end up grabbing more seats then they have ever done before.

“The trend appears to be in favor of JI and the PTI rather than the PPP and MQM, the two other main parties contesting in Karachi,” political analyst Hamza Habib, also a university lecturer, said.

Most television and digital channels have also shown graphics in which public opinion appears to be tilted in favour of JI and PTI with people also talking about the failure of the PPP and MQM elected representatives to stem the rising crime rate in the city.

Whoever wins the Feb 8 polls will find a daunting task ahead due to the dwindling economy and deteriorating security situation. Last year, the country narrowly averted a default when the International Monetary Fund provided a $3 billion short-term loan. Economic experts believe that the new government would need an urgent new IMF program on more stringent conditions.

Pakistan’s more than two decades old fight against terrorism is also unraveling as the rebels have resurged since 2021 after the Afghan Taliban came to power. The new government will find it tougher to deal with the militancy by the banned Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan and Baloch nationalists.

Mobile services suspended

Meanwhile, mobile services have also been ‘temporarily’ suspended across Pakistan on election day due to security threats, Interior Ministry said.

The ministry in a statement said that the security measures are “essential” to maintain law and order and to deal with “potential threats”, The Express Tribune reported.

There was no prior warning that mobile services would be suspended.

The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, a day earlier, assured that internet services will not be suspended, The Express Tribune reported.

Addressing mediapersons, Chief Election Commissioner Sikandar Sultan Raja said that he found out through the media that internet services have been suspended as “security matters have deteriorated”.

There have been two terrorist attacks in Balochistan, resulting in multiple deaths, he said. Therefore, law and order agencies have decided to shut down mobile services, The Express Tribune reported.

He emphasised that the mobile services and internet suspension “do not affect the ECP’s system” as it is not internet dependent.

Sultan said the commission can only give its recommendations to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority. However, it should not interfere with their decisions. “Will not give orders to restore mobile or internet services,” the CEC said.

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