By Riazat Butt And Munir Ahmed, The Associated Press on February 9, 2024.
LAHORE, Pakistan (AP) – Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif changed tack on Friday and said he will seek to form a coalition government after his party trailed independent candidates backed by his rival Imran Khan in parliamentary election results.
Sharif told supporters he was sending his younger brother and former premier, Shehbaz Sharif, to meet the leaders of other parties and invite them to join the coalition.
Nawaz Sharif had gruffly rejected the idea of a coalition just a day earlier, when he told reporters after casting his vote that he wanted a single party running Pakistan for a full five-year term.
“We don’t have enough of a majority to form a government without the support of others and we invite allies to join the coalition so we can make joint efforts to pull Pakistan out of its problems,” he said in the eastern city of Lahore. He also asked independent candidates with a parliamentary seat to enter the coalition.
“I don’t want to fight with those who are in the mood for fighting,” he said. “We will have to sit together to settle all matters.”
He spoke after results earlier Friday showed candidates backed by imprisoned Khan leading in the election, a surprise given claims by his supporters and a national rights body that the balloting was manipulated against Khan.
A former cricket star turned Islamist politician with a significant grassroots following, Khan was disqualified from running in Thursday’s election because of criminal convictions against him. He contends his sentences and a slew of legal cases pending against him were politically motivated.
His party’s candidates were forced to run as independents after they were barred from using the party symbol – a cricket bat – to help illiterate voters find them on ballots.
Of the 221 National Assembly results announced by the election oversight body by Friday night, candidates backed by Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, or PTI, had won 90 seats. The Pakistan Muslim League party of three-time Premier Nawaz Sharif, had 62 seats.
With the results for 45 more seats still to come and a third major party in the mix, it was too soon for any party to declare victory.
But the lack of a majority did not stop Sharif’s relatives and loyalists from appearing on a balcony at the party headquarters, waving to the crowds below. People threw rose petals on Sharif’s car as he arrived to address party workers.
PTI chairman Gohar Khan told Pakistani news channel Geo that the party’s own count shows it securing a total of 150 seats, enough to form a government, though 169 seats are required for a majority in the 336-seat National Assembly, or lower house of parliament.
Observers had expected the Pakistan Muslim League to prevail and put Sharif on track to another term as prime minister due to the disadvantages faced by Khan’s party. 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.
Sharif’s most likely coalition partner would be the Pakistan People’s Party of Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, the son of the assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was in third place with 51 seats. Final results are expected by midnight.
Pakistan’s deeply divided political climate is unlikely to produce a strong coalition pushing for the betterment of the country, grappling with high inflation, year-round energy outages, and militant attacks. Sharif’s rivals, including Bhutto-Zardari, criticized him on the campaign trail so the coalition he seeks is apparently aimed at keeping Khan in prison and the PTI out of politics.
Sporadic violence and an unprecedented nationwide 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 this started only at midday. The Interior Ministry attributed the delay to a “lack of connectivity” resulting from security precautions.
The Election Commission has also started announcing election results for the country’s four provincial assemblies, a vote also held Thursday. The commission posted those results on its website more than 15 hours after polls closed.
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.
Ahmed reported from Islamabad.