In Pakistan, the mobile phone network was switched off across the country on Thursday to mark the general elections. The Interior Ministry justified the move with security concerns and the need to maintain “public order.” The evening before it had been assured that this was not planned. The shutdown fueled distrust of the electoral process among many voters.

Friederike Böge

Political correspondent for Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan based in Ankara.

In particular, former Prime Minister Imran Khan's party was massively hindered during the election campaign after Khan fell out of favor with the powerful military. Shortly before the vote, the popular politician was sentenced to years in prison in three questionable cases. His party PTI was not allowed to advertise itself with its symbol, a cricket bat, during the election campaign or on the ballot paper. Given the high illiteracy rate, many voters may find it difficult to identify the candidates nominated by Khan who are running as independents. The PTI described Thursday's mobile network shutdown on Platform X as a “targeted suppression of civil rights and a mockery of democracy.”

Sharif enjoys the support of the powerful military

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who only returned to Pakistan in October after years in self-imposed exile in London, is generally expected to win. The prison sentence still pending against him for corruption was dropped, as was the lifelong ban on politics imposed on him. This time he apparently enjoys the support of the military after being deposed as head of government three times in the past.

It is likely that his PML-N will not achieve its own majority. A weak government would make it easier for the military to exert influence. “We needed a government with a strong mandate that could tackle structural reforms,” says Niels Hegewisch, country director of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES) in Pakistan. One of the pressing problems is “that the rich don’t pay taxes.”

A voter holds the ballot paper up to the camera in Pakistan on February 8, 2024.

A voter holds the ballot paper up to the camera in Pakistan on February 8, 2024.

Image: AP

In Pakistan, the mobile phone network is often switched off on politically sensitive occasions. On the one hand, it is about preventing the remote detonation of explosive devices. On Wednesday, 28 people were killed in two bomb attacks on campaign offices in Balochistan. On the other hand, the shutdown often serves to thwart the organization of protests. In this case, the measure is also likely to lead to lower voter turnout. Numerous voters in front of a polling station in Rawalpindi were convinced that this was exactly the intention. Many of the 128 million eligible voters do not use a hotline to find out their voter number and polling station until election day. But the hotline 8300 was not available on Thursday morning.

Pakistan is becoming less important for the West

“The lower the participation, the greater the chance of manipulating the result,” says law student Ehsen Ali. He saw that several voters were turned away because they came to the wrong polling station. The mobile network is also important for mobilizing voters who are still undecided. “The establishment wants to demonstrate its power with this,” says accountant Ghina. In Pakistan, “establishment” is a synonym for the military, which pulls the strings behind the scenes.

Even if the PTI-affiliated independent candidates win a majority of parliamentary seats, they are not expected to have much influence on the formation of the government. “We fear that they will be bought by other parties,” said Saqib, a government official. Party changes are not uncommon in Pakistan. Overall, there was hardly any enthusiasm to be felt on election day. Inflation of 30 percent and high unemployment have disillusioned the population.

One of the next government's first tasks will be to secure a new loan from the International Monetary Fund. This is likely to be accompanied by unpopular measures such as the privatization of state-owned companies and a devaluation of the national currency. In contrast to Imran Khan, Nawaz Sharif is considered to be predictable and pro-Western in foreign policy. Relations with the United States are expected to improve. In the run-up to the elections, Washington held back from criticizing the unfair conditions.

By 2022, relations had been strained by Khan's anti-American and pro-Russian rhetoric. Since the withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan, Pakistan's geopolitical importance has declined sharply. The willingness of donor countries to continue supporting Pakistan has decreased. “This means that the country’s business model has become obsolete,” says Hegewisch from the FES. “But not everyone understands that yet.”