The Interior Ministry on Thursday announced a suspension of mobile phone services across Pakistan in a bid to “maintain law and order” as citizens participated in general elections.
“It has been decided to temporarily suspend the mobile service across the country,” read a statement issued by the ministry, stressing that “precious lives have been lost” in recent militant attacks and “security measures are essential to maintain law and order situation and to deal with potential threats.”
While the ministry did not specify how long the suspension would persist, sources within telecommunication companies said they expected it to continue until Saturday, a day after results of the elections are due to be announced.
Speaking with media after the announcement, Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Sikandar Sultan Raja said it was not the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP)’s purview to instruct the interior ministry on measures taken to ensure security. “If we ask them to turn mobile services on and a terror incident takes place, who will be responsible?” he questioned. To a query, he said the ECP’s Election Management System did not rely on the internet and would not face any hurdles in compiling and announcing results of the polls.
The suspension posed immediate problems for citizens, with media organizations struggling to keep in touch with their field reporters. Additionally, voters expressed dismay at an inability to check their polling stations via the 8300 SMS service, leaving many confused over how to exercise their right to vote.
Several political parties demanded restoration of the mobile services, stressing this was a denial of the public’s fundamental rights. Among the leading politicians to make the plea were Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) leader Khawaja Saad Rafique. The Jamaat-e-Islami also declared the measure an “injustice” 250 million Pakistanis.
Speaking with media during its monitoring of the polls, a delegation of the Commonwealth Observer Group said voting was more important than the internet. “We would conduct elections before the inception of the internet,” said the group’s Chair, Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, adding access to the internet was not essential for the voting process.
However, he admitted, the lack of internet could pose problems with compilation of polling results.
Overall, the delegation said it was satisfied with the polling process it had observed, declaring it fair and transparent.