Independent candidates backed by Imran Khan’s PTI party were on course for a stunning victory in Pakistan’s general election on Friday, in a set of much-delayed results that led to widespread accusations of vote tampering and rigging.
With projected results from more than 210 of 265 seats as of Friday evening, independent candidates – most of whom are backed by the PTI – were seen as winning 90 seats, compared to 60 for the incumbent PML-N party of three-time former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. The other grand old party of Pakistani politics, the PPP, trailed in third with 48.
No party seemed likely to reach an outright majority of 133 seats, and the fact that Khan-supporting candidates were banned from running under PTI’s cricket bat symbol meant the coming days were likely to be occupied by great uncertainty over who will end up leading the new government.
Khan remains in jail on a flurry of convictions brought shortly before the election that he says are politically motivated, and there is no certainty that the victorious independent candidates backed by PTI will be allowed to formally declare their allegiance to the party once the election results are all in.
Sharif declared victory shortly before 8pm local time on Friday, stating that PML-N had emerged from the elections as the single largest party and that it would seek to form a coalition government. He added that it “would have been good” if the party had won an outright majority, but that officials would engage with other parties immediately for coalition talks.
Officials from PML-N said earlier that they were in contact with victorious independents, presumably in an effort to win over their allegiance to the party that has led Pakistan for the past two years, after ousting Khan in a no-confidence vote. They have three days to declare for a party before the next parliament is formed.
The PTI’s chair, Gohar Ali Khan, told Geo News that the party was on course to win a majority and that independent candidates loyal to Khan would not be tempted away to other parties. The party’s officials said it would challenge the results in a number of seats where its independents had lost after appearing to perform well in the initial stages of the count.
“We are not intending to form a coalition government with PPP and PML-N,” he said. “We will form the government at the centre and [the key political breeding ground state of] Punjab.”
Despite concerns over the conduct of the election and threats to security, voters appeared to have turned out in large numbers on Thursday – official turnout figures have not yet been released.
And there was growing concern throughout Friday as preliminary election results, normally announced within a few hours in Pakistan, continued to prove elusive. Several parties, including the PTI, alleged that counting appeared to have been halted by the authorities in constituencies where opposition parties had taken an early lead.
As the wait for results went on, concerns about mass unrest around the elections – which already appear to have contributed to the government shutting down mobile data services on election day – led police in Islamabad to issue section 144 orders banning public gatherings. “Legal action will be taken in case of any disturbance,” Islamabad Police warned in a statement on social media.
One PTI voter in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Talha Hassan, told The Independent on Friday that there was growing talk of taking to the streets as frustration over the slow counting process mounted. He, like many others, expressed his fear that the delays in announcing the election results could mean votes are being tampered with.
“It is exasperating. The results should have been announced within 12 to 15 hours, even if there were issues, but it’s been more than a day now. Furthermore, every result seems to be against PTI, hinting that the election has been rigged,” Mr Hassan said.
Mr Sharif’s PML-N was regarded as the military’s favoured party going into these elections, a major factor given the establishment’s notorious involvement in Pakistani politics. There is a high degree of scepticism in the country that the military would allow its preferred party to be forced out of government without interference.
Senator Mushahid Hussain, a member of Sharif’s party, called Friday’s preliminary results “probably the biggest election upset in Pakistan‘s political history”. He also warned that delaying or withholding results would be a recipe for disaster.
Sayed Zulfikar Bukhari, one of the closest aides of jailed leader Khan, told The Independent that delays in voting, internet suspension and other violations were clearly tactics to prevent citizens from casting their vote freely after what he called an “unprecedented turnout”.
“Although people have turned up in large numbers, I can categorically tell you that they will say that the turnout wasn’t that high,” Mr Bukhari said.
“Imran Khan remains the [most] popular leader of Pakistan and that’s why PTI has seen more popularity in the last 18 months than it ever has in 30 years.”
Since being ousted through a no-confidence vote in 2022, Mr Khan has been hit with more than 170 charges and jailed on multiple convictions, including charges of corruption and leaking official secrets.
Mr Khan has blamed the military for the overthrow of his government after he fell out with the country’s top generals as prime minister.
Mr Sharif returned to Pakistan last year from his self-imposed exile. He was ousted in a 1999 military coup and was sentenced to imprisonment for corruption in 2017 during his third term as prime minister before fleeing to London for medical treatment.
Following his return – with his brother installed as prime minister and PML-N back in power – he successfully appealed a lifetime ban on holding office and had his criminal record expunged, enabling him to pursue what would mark a historic fourth-term candidacy.