Pakistan held its long-delayed elections Thursday, but almost nine hours after polling ended, no constituency had reported a complete tally.
Former Prime Minister Imran Khan's party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or PTI, claimed a lead based on an initial, unofficial count.
Polling stations across the South Asian nation closed at 5 p.m. local time after nine hours of balloting. Until 2 a.m. Friday, several constituencies had barely tallied 10% of the vote, according to local media reports.
The independent Election Commission of Pakistan did not issue an update on when counts would be completed. Prior to elections, it announced that polling officials should send results to the commission by 2 a.m. February 9.
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, Pakistan's former foreign minister and leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party, complained on X that the results were "incredibly slow" coming in.
More than 90,000 polling stations were set up to serve more than 128 million registered voters for the February 8 general election.
Sporadic violence and the nationwide suspension of mobile phone and internet services overshadowed the largely peaceful polls, raising credibility concerns about an already controversial vote.
An early morning Interior Ministry announcement said the disruption in phone service was meant to "mitigate potential security threats" and "maintain law and order."
The ministry did not discuss the internet outage, which came a day after separate bomb blasts outside campaign offices in southwestern Baluchistan province Wednesday killed 30 people. The Islamic State extremist group claimed responsibility for the bombings. Militant attacks in parts of the country on election day also killed several people, mostly policemen.
Analysts say whoever wins the election will serve a public that is deeply disappointed in the political system, has little faith in the electoral process and is extremely worried about the nation's economic survival.
Three-time former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's Muslim League (Nawaz) Party is viewed as the favorite of the powerful military, while the last elected prime minister, Imran Khan, is in jail. A military-backed crackdown on his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf Party has left many disappointed in this democratic exercise.
"I came out thinking that maybe my vote will improve something for this country and for us," said Faiza Tariq, a first-time female voter in the eastern city of Lahore.
Fazal-Ur-Rehman was among those who did not vote, citing a lack of trust in the process.
"It doesn't matter if I vote or not. Those who are supposed to come in power will come in power," he said.
Nazward Atta, a Pakistani living abroad, said she returned only to vote to fight the alleged unfairness.
"We just want to change the fate of Pakistan and the future of Pakistan," she said.
Other voters, like Anam Khan, criticized the disruption of communication services.
"Why? Is there a war going on here? Do they want to keep people from posting videos on social media? People can do that later, God willing," she said.
The Pakistani government deployed more than 650,000 army, paramilitary and police personnel to provide security for tens of thousands of polling stations across the world's fifth most populous country, with an estimated population of 241 million.
Several hours after the polling ended, the Interior Ministry said mobile services were being partially restored nationwide and would soon be fully reinstated.
The suspension of phone and internet services sparked widespread allegations of an attempt by Pakistan's military-backed interim government to rig the polls, mainly to prevent candidates loyal to Khan's party from gaining an upper hand.
Khan a central figure
Khan, the 71-year-old popular politician, has been convicted and sentenced to lengthy prison terms for highly disputed corruption and other charges in the lead-up to the vote.
The cricket hero-turned-political leader's PTI has been subjected to a monthslong nationwide clampdown, in which hundreds of workers and candidates were arrested without charges and released only after quitting the party or withdrawing from the election.
"Despite being in jail, Khan remains a central figure in the election," said Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center. "He retains a large base that will want to vote for the independent candidates sponsored by his party.
"But it appears the state is creating an enabling environment for rigging with its suspension of mobile services. This threatens to deny many Pakistanis the right to vote for who they choose, casting doubt on the government's insistence that this election will be free and fair," Kugelman told VOA.
Internet outage criticized
"We're tracking reports of restrictions on internet and cellphone access across Pakistan on polling day," Vedant Patel, the State Department principal deputy spokesperson, told reporters in Washington.
"We, along with the international community, will continue to emphasize the importance of democratic institutions, a free press, a vibrant civil society and expanded opportunities for political participation of all Pakistanis," Patel said.
Amnesty International denounced the election day internet shutdown as "reckless" and a "blunt attack" on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.
Pakistan has nearly 190 million cellular subscribers, including 128 million using mobile broadband services. The suspension of service left many voters unable to access the election commission's data system to retrieve polling station locations and other details.
Sikandar Sultan, Pakistan's chief election commissioner, said security agencies maintaining law and order were solely authorized to make decisions such as suspending phone service.
"I don't think the commission should interfere in their work, nor will it do so," Sultan told reporters in Islamabad when asked if the commission would direct authorities to reinstate service.
Journalists with mainstream Pakistani television channels said they could not promptly report rigging incidents and other irregularities from the field throughout the day due to the suspension.
"Shutting down mobile networks on polling day is the beginning of election day rigging," said Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar, an independent candidate for the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament in Islamabad.
"Cutting candidates off from their agents and staff on election day is unacceptable. How's one supposed to keep a check and highlight any irregularity? By the time news comes out, [the] election would have been stolen," Khokhar said.
Sharif appeared confident that his party would win and form a government on its own, saying a coalition government would not be able to address Pakistan's economic problems.
"For God's sake, don't mention a coalition government," he told reporters after casting his vote in his native Lahore.
More than 5,000 candidates were contesting for 266 general seats in the 342-member National Assembly. About 12,600 candidates were running for assembly seats in Pakistan's four provinces.
The U.S.-based Gallup polling company found in a survey on the eve of the elections that more than two-thirds of Pakistanis "lack confidence in the honesty of their elections."