Pakistan goes to the polls, will ex-PM Nawaz Sharif make a comeback?

Pakistan has suspended mobile calls and data services as millions head to the polls to vote in a new government in the troubled nation.Both calls and data services have been suspended, though Wifi networks still appear to be working.
An interior ministry spokesman said the measure was warranted, citing recent incidents of terror in the country.
Two bomb blasts killed 28 people in the restive Balochistan province on Wednesday.
Former prime minister Imran Khan, one of the country’s most popular politicians, is in jail, as are many members and supporters of his opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party (PTI).
The elections will see the return of another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who is back from exile and may be headed for a fourth turn as Pakistan’s leader, many pundits surmise

The PTI and its supporters say it has been systematically handicapped in the election campaign, with restrictions on its ability to hold rallies, and its candidates and workers facing arrest.

Pakistan’s all-powerful military is largely being blamed for the crackdown, a charge it denies, as it largely seen globally to have a hand in the nation’s politics, it says it no longer does so though.

The election comes almost two years cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, was ousted  as PM in a no-confidence vote.

Three-time PM Sharif is now on the ballot in what many analysts say is Pakistan’s least credible election yet, as many expected a blanket shut down of communications.

Instead of facilitation, many urban voters in Pakistan’s major cities are finding it difficult to-ordinate when to head to polling stations.

The shutdown was also criticized by Bilawal Bhutto Zadari, son of ex-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who called for services to be restored ‘immediately.’

Mr Bhutto, also in the running, said his Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) had approached the election commission and the courts to get services restored.

The country is on high alert, with heavy security presence at polling stations across the country, including armed guards around the sensitive areas.

Border crossings with Afghanistan and Iran have been closed for both cargo and pedestrians, Pakistan’s foreign ministry said.

Strict rules around election coverage remain in place until the end of voting at 5 pm, with Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML-N) and the PPP considered the two major parties going in.

As many as 128 million people are registered to cast their votes, almost half of whom are under the age of 35.

More than 5,000 candidates, 313 women included, are contesting the 336 seats up for grabs in this election.

A majority requires 169 seats in the 336-seat National Assembly.

However, picking out candidates from Khan’s PTI will prove difficult after it was banned from using its cricket bat symbol, forcing PTI-backed candidates, who are running as independents, to use other symbols instead, including calculators, electric heaters and dice.

Electoral symbols play a key role in a country with high illiteracy.

The PTI allege other tactics have also been used to prevent their candidates from winning seats, including locking up PTI members and supporters and banning them from holding rallies, effectively forcing them underground.

Khan, jailed on corruption charges, is serving at least 14 years in prison, having been sentenced in three separate cases in the space of five days last week.

The PTI alleges interference by Pakistan’s powerful military, with whom Khan is said to have fallen out before his ousting and imprisonment.

People will be able to vote for Sharif however, who at the time of the last election was beginning a sentence for corruption.

The former PM was ousted in a 1999 military coup and had his third term cut short in 2017 – but he recently returned from self-imposed exile and had his lifetime ban on holding office overturned.

Sharif also got his criminal record wiped clean at the end of last year, allowing him to stand for what would be a record fourth term.

The elections are significant considering Pakistan ahs been hit hard by the economic woes, made worse by devastating floods in 2022.

Inflation is soaring, and people are struggling to pay their bills amid heightening security situations due to violent resistance groups.

The Election Commission of Pakistan has categorized half of the 90,675 polling stations as either ‘sensitive’ meaning there is a risk of violence, or ‘most sensitive’, indicating a higher risk.

A history of electoral violence amid communications clampdowns make it a challenging day out for Pakistan’s voters to exercise their franchise.