February 28th, 2024

Independent candidates backed by ex-PM Khan’s party take early lead in Pakistan’s national election

By Riazat Butt And Munir Ahmed, The Associated Press on February 9, 2024.

Members of polling staff count the votes after the polls closed for parliamentary elections, in Peshawar, Pakistan, Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024. (AP Photo/Muhammad Sajjad)

LAHORE, Pakistan (AP) – Independent candidates backed by imprisoned former Prime Minister Imran Khan were leading Pakistan’s national election results Friday, a surprise given claims by Khan’s supporters and a national rights body that the balloting was manipulated to favor his rival.

Khan, a former cricketer turned politician with a significant grassroots following was disqualified from running in Thursday’s election because of criminal convictions he contends were politically motivated. His party’s candidates ran as independents after they were barred from using the party symbol – a cricket bat – to help illiterate voters find them on ballots.

Of the 156 National Assembly results announced by the country’s election oversight body as of late Friday afternoon, candidates backed by Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party had won 62 seats. The Pakistan Muslim League of his rival, three-time former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, had 46 seats.

With the results for 110 more seats still pending and a third major party in the mix, it was too soon for any party to declare victory. PTI Chairman Gohar Khan told Pakistani news channel Geo that the party’s own count showed it securing a total of 150 seats, enough for it to form a government, though 169 seats are required for a majority.

If confirmed by the final vote count, that outcome would defy almost all pre-election predictions. Observers had expected the Pakistan Muslim League to prevail and put Sharif to be on track to another term as prime minister due to the disadvantages faced by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or PTI.

Along with Khan being in prison and accruing more criminal convictions, election officials and police blocked his party from holding rallies and opening campaign offices, and its online events were blocked. The PTI said the moves were intended to prevent them from competing in the election and gaining momentum with voters.

The partial results released Friday showed the Pakistan People’s Party of Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, the son of the assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, in third place with 39 seats. All results were expected by Friday night.

Bhutto-Zardari did not respond to requests for comment about his party’s performance.

After many Pakistani news channels reported early Friday that PTI-backed candidates were giving the parties led by Sharif and Bhutto-Zardari a run for their money, Sen. Mushahid Hussain, a Pakistan Muslim League member, called the media tallies “probably the biggest election upset in Pakistan’s political history” in 50 years.

If no party wins an outright majority, the one with the most seats can try to form a coalition government. Pakistan’s deeply divided political climate, however, is unlikely to produce a coalition pulling together for the betterment of the country, which is grappling with high inflation, year-round energy outages, and militant attacks.

Sporadic violence and a cellphone service shutdown overshadowed Thursday’s voting. The chief election commissioner previously said the results would be communicated to the oversight body by early Friday and released to the public after that. But it started happening only at midday. The Interior Ministry attributed the delay to a “lack of connectivity” resulting from security precautions.

The Election Commission also started announcing election results for the country’s four provincial assemblies. The commission posted results on its website more than 15 hours after polls closed.

Sharif struck a confident and defiant note on polling day, brushing off suggestions his party might not win an outright majority in parliament.

Sharif and Khan’s circumstances on election day represented a reversal of fortunes for the two men. Sharif returned to Pakistan in October after four years of self-imposed exile abroad to avoid serving prison sentences. Within weeks of his return, his convictions were overturned, leaving him free to seek a fourth term in office.

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Ahmed reported from Islamabad.

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