Lahore, Pakistan — Amidst raucous protests of pre-poll manipulation, mobile service suspension and bomb blasts in the country which killed at least nine people, Pakistan’s 12th general election were declared closed on Thursday evening.
The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has said that the counting process started soon after the closure of the poll. The results are expected to start trickling in later at night.
Three-time former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz is considered the front-runner to emerge victorious.
Sharif spoke to the media after casting his vote, declaring he never had any problems with the Pakistani military, the primary power broker in the country with whom he has had major differences in the past.
His path to potential premiership was cleared after his chief political rival, ex-Prime Minister mran Khan, was barred from participating in the election due to a conviction in a corruption case.
Khan is currently in jail serving multiple sentences for a range of convictions, but had urged his voters to ensure that they came out on polling day.
Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI) also had its symbol taken away by the ECP, but the party still managed to put up independent candidates in a coordinated campaign.
Earlier in the day former foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari Pakistan People’s Party cast his vote in the province of Sindh, where the PPP is particularly strong. The PPP will be hoping it can spring a surprise and upset predictions by emerging victorious.
Before the voting started at its scheduled 8am local time (0300 GMT), the government announced the suspension of mobile services across the country, citing security concerns.
Yet, there were multiple incidents of bomb blasts during the day, which killed at least nine people in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the southwestern province of Balochistan.
This followed the two bomb blasts in Balochistan on Wednesday at election offices of two candidates, which resulted in the death of at least 27 people.
After the closure of the polls, interim prime minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar in a statement said it was a “momentous occasion”.
Kakar also said praised the enthusiasm of the people of Pakistan and appreciated their participation in the polling process. “The high voter turnout is a clear indication of public commitment to shaping the future of our country,” he said in his statement. However, reports emerged from across the country that voter turnout remained subdued during the day.
Pakistan, historically, has seen low voter turnout in elections. Since 1985, only twice has the turnout exceeded 50 percent of total voters, in 2013 (54 percent) and 2018 (51 percent).
Of the128 million voters registered to vote this year, more than 45 percent of them are between the ages of 18 and 35. According to election statistics, from 1997 onwards, the voter turnout of those between the ages of 18 and 30 never crossed 40 percent, reaching a high of 37 percent in 2018.
When polling started in Pakistan this morning, all eyes were on the voters of PTI. With a state crackdown since May last year and now the imprisonment of their leader Khan, the party’s supporters had vowed to respond through tehir votes.
However, at more than a dozen polling stations that Al Jazeera visited till 3pm, mostly in Lahore’s middle-income and working-class localities, voter enthusiasm appeared lacklustre. In one polling station in Mochi Gate area, out of nearly 1400 registered voters, less than 250 had showed up.
“I have done election duties in the past and it was never so dismal,” ECP official Mohammed Ashfaq told Al Jazeera.
There were several complaints that emerged from Karachi, the largest city in the country, where voters alleged that polling staff at various polling station was absent and, in many places, voting did not begin as late as 3pm (1000 GMT) local time.
“This is my third attempt to vote today. I came in the morning, there was no one here. All the room were empty. I came earlier in the afternoon, and rooms were empty, and polling booths weren’t set up. People were running back and forth trying to figure out which room to go to. It’s been a nightmare,” Elhaam Shaikh, 35, told Al Jazeera.
While the ECP has barred exit polls in the country, the voters Al Jazeera spoke to appeared to be split between PTI and PMLN.
Ayesha Siddiqua, a teacher in Lahore, said she had been a lifelong Imran Khan fan and would vote for him regardless of what other parties have to offer.
“I have been following him since his cricket days, and then the cancer hospital he built,” she told Al Jazeera, after casting her vote in Lahore. “For me, he can do no wrong.” Khan built a cancer hospital in Lahore in 1994, named after his mother who had died of the disease in 1985.
Other voters such as Khalid Taimur, a tour guide in Lahore, said his vote was reserved for Sharif, the PMLN supremo.
“Nawaz Sharif gave us roads, buses, trains. He gave us infrastructure projects that helped the life of common people. His legacy is his work, which speaks for itself,” the 52-year-old told Al Jazeera after voting.
In Pakistan’s southwestern Balochistan province, voting turn-out for women remained low as compared to the rest of the country. Tribal traditions in the province often serve as a deterrent to women moving about publicly.
Pakistan’s election body said that if the total female turnout in any constituency was less than 10 percent of total votes, it might order fresh voting there.
“If the total female voters’ count in a constituency remains below 10% of the total votes cast, the Election Commission of Pakistan, as per law, can void the voting in that constituency and order for re-polling,” the electoral watchdog said in a message on X (formerly known as Twitter), a day before election.
— Election Commission of Pakistan (OFFICIAL)🇵🇰 (@ECP_Pakistan) February 7, 2024
Muteeba Naz, 21, came to cast her first-ever ballot in Quetta, Balochistan’s capital. “The next government’s priority should be inflation and terrorism, because yesterday over two dozen people were killed in Balochistan,” she told Al Jazeera.
With the country dealing with an economy in crisis, as well as a volatile security situation with more than 1000 people dying last year in violent attacks, many Pakistanis are viewing the elections with the hope that it can produce a government capable of bringing some stability to the nation of 241 million people.
But analysts have warned that the next government may struggle to gain legitimacy because of the targeting of Khan. And without the trust of Pakistan’s people, they cautioned, the next prime minister may struggle to take steps to help the country fight its myriad challeges.
With additional reporting from Alia Chughtai in Karachi, Saadullah Akhter in Quetta and Islam Gul Afridi in Peshawar.