More than 370,000 troops will stand guard over Wednesday’s general election in Pakistan as the country prepares to vote after deadly militant attacks.
Troops have delivered ballot papers to polling stations across the world’s sixth most populous nation.
Military commanders have been given sweeping powers to enforce order today, while border crossings into Afghanistan have been closed to try to prevent further violence that has killed more than 175 people during campaigning.
ISIS sources told The National that the terrorist group intended to attack polling, saying the election was un-Islamic and that voters were apostates.
Voting is forecast to mark the country's second democratic transition of power, but the campaign has been overshadowed by accusations of military meddling, which has been likened to a "creeping coup".
Jailed former prime minister Nawaz Sharif has accused the military of undermining his party in favour of Imran Khan’s opposition party.
The amount of military personnel on the streets is more than five times that seen in the 2013 election, when groups such as the Pakistani Taliban were more powerful.
It was reported yesterday that mobile phone networks would be shut down in parts of Balochistan province. Other networks were expected to follow.
“Human rights defenders feel very strongly about it and fear that it will have serious implications on the conduct of free, fair and impartial elections,” Pakistan’s human rights commission said.
There was also alarm that commanders guarding the 85,307 polling stations would be given magistrates’ powers for the day. The military denies interference.
A statement from the military said troops were working with the country’s election commission to provide “free, fair and transparent elections”. Along with police and local officials they were “ensuring a safe and secure environment”.
Election campaigning began peacefully, but in the past fortnight it has been plagued by attacks on candidates, putting the country on edge.
A suicide blast at a rally in Balochistan province this month was one of Pakistan’s worst terrorist atrocities. At least 148 people died in the attack claimed by the local branch of ISIS.
ISIS sources said its fighters would kill voters in a similar threat to the one made before May’s election in Iraq.
“We will kill every person who casts a vote during the election because it is a violation of Islamic principles,” one militant said.
Security forces killed the group’s militant leader in Balochistan, Amir Mufti Hidayatullah, during a fight last week in Kalat.
Pakistan’s own Taliban have also attacked the campaign, killing one candidate from Mr Khan’s party at the weekend.
Ikramullah Gandapur was fatally wounded along with his driver, and three companions were badly hurt when a bomb blast struck his vehicle as he was returning home from a political meeting.
The Taliban has largely been based across the border in Afghanistan after fleeing a military offensive in 2015.
Pakistan’s embassy in Kabul announced that two border crossing points, at Chaman and Kharlachi, would remain closed for 48 hours for the parliamentary elections.
Meanwhile, pollsters said the contest was close.
The campaign has boiled down to a race between Mr Sharif’s ruling Pakistan Muslim League and Mr Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, or Pakistan Justice Movement.
“Our predictions are very murky right now,” Bilal Gilani, executive director of Gallup Pakistan, told AFP. “It’s still up for grabs.”
Parties are training huge numbers of polling agents to oversee voting as more than 12,000 candidates battle for 272 seats in parliament and 577 seats in four provincial assemblies.
The candidates finished campaigning on Monday night with massive rallies.
Mr Khan told his supporters that his campaign had been “the culmination of 22 years of struggle”.
“I can honestly say I have given my best for Pakistan. Now I leave the rest to Allah,” he said.
Mr Sharif has issued audio messages apparently from inside Adiala jail urging supporters to turn out for his party, which is now run by his younger brother Shahbaz.
Bilalwal Bhutto Zardari, leader of the third-placed Pakistan People’s Party, said the campaign had highlighted more than ever “the need for us to come together as a nation to build a peaceful, prosperous and progressive Pakistan”.
While some indications of who has won may be available tonight, an official result could take several days.
Whoever wins faces a challenging task, with the country’s economy the first priority. Pakistan’s currency has been devalued three times since December and foreign currency reserves are fast dwindling.
The country is expected to ask for a bailout from the International Monetary Fund as soon as September or October.
At the same time, relations with its nuclear rival India remain frozen.
Strained relations with America worsened this year when the US cut off large amounts of aid after President Donald Trump denounced Islamabad’s “lies and deceit”.