ISLAMABAD: Pakistan began counting votes after polling ended on Thursday in a general election marred by militant attacks and suspension of mobile phone services, with authorities saying that at least nine people had been killed nationwide.
The vote was held as the South Asian country struggles to recover from an economic crisis while it grapples with rising militant violence in a deeply polarised political environment.
TV channels are expected to make projections of first results a few hours after voting closed at 5 pm and a clear picture is likely to emerge early on Friday as counting continues through the night.
Many analysts believe 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 stepped up to ensure peaceful polling.
Despite the heightened security, nine people, including two children, were killed in bomb blasts, grenade attacks and shootings.
At least 26 people were killed in two explosions near electoral candidates' offices in the southwestern province of Balochistan on Wednesday. IS later claimed responsibility for those attacks.
Thursday's victims included five police killed in a bomb blast and firing on a patrol in the Kulachi area of Dera Ismail Khan district in the northwest, authorities said. Two children died in a blast outside a women's polling station in Balochistan.
In spite of the security worries and bitter winter cold, people lined up at polling stations hours before voting was due to start. "The country is at stake, why should I come late?" said 86-year-old Mumtaz, a housewife a decade older than Pakistan itself as she queued up in Islamabad.
Caretaker Prime Minister Anwaar ul Haq Kakar said there had been high voter turnout in "a clear indication of public commitment to shaping the future of our country".
"In the face of adversity, the people of Pakistan have shown remarkable courage and determination," he posted on X. "Your resolve in the aftermath of the recent terrorism incidents, continuing to participate in the electoral process, is a powerful statement against the forces that seek to destabilise our nation."
The move to suspend mobile networks sparked criticism from leaders of opposition parties, with the Pakistan Peoples Party's Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the 35-year-old son of assassinated former premier Benazir Bhutto, calling for its "immediate restoration".
Amnesty International called it "a blunt attack on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly".
Chief Election Commissioner Sikandar Sultan Raja said the decision on mobile networks was made by "law and order agencies" following Wednesday's violence and the commission would not interfere.
There was no word on when the networks would be restored.
Jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, in a post on X, called on people to remove passwords from their personal Wifi accounts "so anyone in the vicinity" could have internet access.
Election officials said they received several complaints from people who were unable to find their polling stations because of the internet shutdown.
"The communication with voters and others is very difficult ... we are facing so many problems due to the internet closure," said 50-year-old Mehmood Chaudry, a school teacher who cast his vote in the city of Rawalpindi.
Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, considered by many analysts to be the front-runner, dismissed talk of an unclear result and emphasised the need for a "clear majority".
"Don't talk about a coalition government. It is very important for a government to get a clear majority... It should not be relying on others," he told reporters after casting his vote in the eastern city of Lahore. - Reuters