ISLAMABAD (AFP) - Millions of Pakistanis voted Thursday in an election marred by rigging allegations, with authorities suspending mobile phone services throughout the day and the country's most popular politician in jail.
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 Imran Khan, and the hobbling of his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party by the military-led establishment.
The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) is expected to win the most seats in Thursday's vote, with analysts saying its 74-year-old founder Nawaz Sharif has won the blessing of the generals.
Adding to concerns about the integrity of the vote, authorities announced just before polls opened that they had suspended mobile telephone services across the country "to maintain law and order" after two blasts on Wednesday that killed 28 people.
Nighat Dad, a lawyer who runs the not-for-profit Digital Rights Foundation, said the outage "is 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".
Voters in Pakistan rely on a text messaging service to confirm the polling station where they are registered. Forty-year-old Abdul Jabbar said the internet disruption stopped him and his wife from using the service. "Other PTI supporters helped us to trace it in the end," he told AFP.
- 'Fear for my vote' -
Polling stations opened at 8:00 am (0300 GMT) and were due to close at 5:00 pm. They were guarded by armed security forces.
"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
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.
In the central city of Multan, Ayesha Bibi said the next government must provide more rural schools for women. "We came here by foot and then on a tractor trailer. It was a very difficult and hard journey," said the housewife.
- 'Security measures' -
More than 650,000 army, paramilitary and police personnel were deployed to provide security for an election already marred by violence.
On Wednesday, at least 28 people were killed and more than 30 wounded by two bomb blasts outside the offices of candidates in southwestern Pakistan, in attacks claimed hours later by the Islamic State group.
Justifying the mobile phone shutdown, an interior ministry spokesman said "security measures are essential to maintain law and order situation and to deal with potential threats".
The foreign ministry said land borders with neighbours Iran and Afghanistan would also be closed to all traffic Thursday as a security measure.
The election figures are staggering in the nuclear-armed nation of 240 million people -- the world's fifth-most populous.
Nearly 18,000 candidates are standing for seats in the national and four provincial assemblies, with 266 seats directly contested in the former -- an additional 70 reserved for women and minorities -- and 749 places in the regional parliaments.
- Tables turned -
Thursday's election has a similar air to the 2018 poll, but with the tables turned. 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.
As he cast his vote at a school in Lahore Thursday, Sharif denied that he had made any deal with the military to rule.
"Actually I have never had any problems with the military," he said. The history of Pakistan 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 last week sentenced to lengthy jail terms for treason, graft, and an illegal marriage.
A PTI official told AFP that Khan had been allowed a postal ballot from Adiala Jail. 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.
If Sharif does not win a ruling majority, he will most likely still take power via a coalition with one or more junior partners -- including the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), another family-run dynasty now led by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.
Pollsters have said the election has left the population at its most "discouraged" in years. Whoever wins takes over a deeply divided country, observers say, with the economy in tatters.
Inflation is galloping at nearly 30 percent, the rupee has been in free fall for three years and a balance of payments deficit has frozen imports, severely hampering industrial growth.