Election officials in Karachi count votes after polls end during the Pakistan's national elections

Islamabad (AFP) - Officials ordered returning officers to speed up the release of results Friday following a Pakistan election marred by rigging allegations, while the country’s most popular politician Imran Khan languished in jail.

By 3 am (2300 GMT), some 10 hours after polling stations closed, the Election Commission of Pakistan had announced just four provincial assembly results, blaming the delay on “internet problems”.

Pollsters predicted a low turnout from the country’s 128 million eligible voters following a lacklustre campaign overshadowed by the jailing of former prime minister Khan, and the hobbling of his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party by the military-led establishment.

The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) had been expected to win the most seats in Thursday’s vote, with analysts saying its 74-year-old founder Nawaz Sharif had the blessing of the generals.

But despite no official results for the National Assembly being released, PTI claimed they were heading for victory based on early returns reported by local media – representing 10 percent of polling stations from most constituencies.

“Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf-backed independent candidates have the ability to form the next federal government with a two-thirds majority,” PTI chief organiser Omar Ayub Khan said in a video statement released to media.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), another family-run dynasty, said early results for his candidates “were very encouraging”.

Hundreds of PTI supporters took to the streets in Peshawar to celebrate what they said was a victory for their candidates.

Despite security precautions, deadly violence has plagued the run-up to Pakistan's election

Adding to concerns about the integrity of the vote, authorities suspended mobile phone services just as polls opened Thursday at 8:00 am.

Despite announcing a few hours after polls closed at 5:00 pm (1200 GMT) that they would be gradually restored, many cities were without a signal until early Friday.

The interior ministry had earlier said the outage was “to maintain law and order” after two blasts on Wednesday – later claimed by the Islamic State group – killed 28 people and wounded at least 30 more in southwestern Balochistan province.

Nighat Dad, a lawyer who runs the not-for-profit Digital Rights Foundation, called the blackout “an attack on the democratic rights of Pakistanis”.

“Shutting down mobile phone services is not a solution to national security concerns. If you shut down access to information you create more chaos”.

- ‘Fear for my vote’ -

More than 650,000 army, paramilitary and police personnel were deployed to provide security on Thursday. There were a total of 51 attacks nationwide, the army said, killing a dozen people including 10 security forces.

At least seven officers were killed in two separate attacks targeting election security details. The army said a total of 39 people were wounded in assaults “aimed at disrupting the electoral process”.

The number of deaths was fewer than in 2018, when dozens were killed in violent attacks.

“My only fear is whether my vote will be counted for the same party I cast it for. At the same time, for the poor it does not matter who is ruling – we need a government that can control inflation,” said Syed Tassawar, a 39-year-old construction worker

A polling officer marks the finger of a woman after she cast her ballot at a polling station in Islamabad

First-time voter Haleema Shafiq, a 22-year-old psychology student, said she believed in the importance of voting.

“I believe in democracy. I want a government that can make Pakistan safer for girls,” she told AFP in Islamabad.

- Tables turned -

Thursday’s election had a similar air to the 2018 poll, but with the tables turned.

Imran Khan received three jail sentences in the lead up to the election

Then, it was Sharif who was disqualified from running because of a string of convictions for graft, while Khan swept to power with the backing of the military, as well as genuine support.

The history of Pakistan’s elections is chequered with allegations of rigging but also favouritism, said Bilal Gilani, executive director of polling group Gallup Pakistan.

“It’s a managed democracy that the military runs,” he said.

Unlike the last poll, however, the opposition party has had its name removed from ballots, forcing PTI-selected candidates to run as independents.

Khan, a former international cricketer who led Pakistan to victory in the World Cup in 1992, was allowed a postal ballot from Adiala Jail, a PTI official said.

The former PM was last week sentenced to lengthy jail terms for treason, graft, and an illegal marriage.

Analysts say the character assassination shows how worried the military is that PTI-selected candidates could still prove a decisive factor in Thursday’s vote.

Whoever wins takes over an economy in tatters, with inflation galloping at nearly 30 percent and a balance of payments deficit that has frozen imports, severely hampering industrial growth.