Pakistan began counting votes after voting ended Thursday in a general election marked by militant attacks and the suspension of mobile phone services, with authorities saying at least nine people were killed across the country .
The vote came as the South Asian country struggles to recover from an economic crisis and grapples with growing militant violence in a deeply polarized political environment.
Television networks are expected to make projections on the early results within hours of polling closing at 12:00 GMT – 7:00 a.m. ET – and a clear picture is expected to emerge early Friday as counting continues through the night.
The National Assembly has 265 seats and voting for one seat was postponed due to the death of a candidate. A party needs 133 seats to achieve a simple majority, but many analysts say the vote may not produce a clear winner.
Thousands of troops were deployed on the streets and at polling stations across the country, and borders with Iran and Afghanistan were temporarily closed as security was tightened to ensure a peaceful vote.
Despite increased security measures, nine people, including two children, were killed in bomb blasts, grenade attacks and shootings.
At least 26 people were killed Wednesday in two explosions near the offices of election candidates in the southwestern province of Balochistan. Islamic State later claimed responsibility for these attacks.
Thursday’s casualties included five police officers killed in a bomb blast and shooting at a patrol in the Kulachi area of the northwestern Dera Ismail Khan district, authorities said. Two children died in an explosion outside a women’s polling station in Balochistan.
“Despite some isolated incidents, the overall situation remained under control, demonstrating the effectiveness of our security measures,” Acting Interior Minister Gohar Ejaz said in a statement.
Mobile telephone services suspended for security reasons are partially resuming, the Interior Ministry announced Thursday evening.
Despite security concerns and the freezing winter cold, people lined up outside polling stations hours before voting began.
“The country is at stake, why should I be late?” said Mumtaz, 86, a housewife ten years older than Pakistan itself, as she waited in line in the capital, Islamabad.
Acting Prime Minister Anwaar ul Haq Kakar said the voter turnout was “a clear indication of public commitment to shaping the future of our country.”
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The decision to suspend mobile networks drew criticism from opposition party leaders, with Bilawal Bhutto Zardari of the Pakistan People’s Party, the 35-year-old son of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, calling for its ” immediate restoration.
Amnesty International called it a “brutal attack on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.”
Chief Election Commissioner Sikandar Sultan Raja said the decision on mobile networks was taken by “law and order agencies” following Wednesday’s violence.
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Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, seen by many analysts as the favorite, dismissed rumors of a unclear outcome.
“Don’t talk about a coalition government. It is very important that a government obtains a clear majority… It should not rely on others,” he told reporters after voting in Lahore, in the east of the country.
The main contests are expected to be between candidates backed by former cricket superstar Khan, whose party won the last national election, and Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League, which analysts say is backed by the powerful military.
The military dominated the nuclear-armed country, directly or indirectly, during its 76 years of independence, but maintained for several years that it did not interfere in politics.
“The deciding factor is which side the powerful army and its security agencies are on,” said Abbas Nasir, a columnist. “Only a strong turnout in favor of (Khan’s) PTI can change his fortunes.”
He added: “The economic challenges are so severe, and the solutions so painful, that I am not sure how whoever comes to power will manage to keep the ship afloat. »
If the elections do not result in a clear majority for anyone, as analysts predict, it will be difficult to address multiple challenges, the first being seeking a new bailout program from the International Monetary Fund after the deal expires current in March.