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Candidates loyal to imprisoned former prime minister Imran Khan have won a shock victory in Pakistan’s election, defying a military-backed campaign of arrests and harassment to mount an unexpected bid for power in the country of 240mn.
Independent candidates backed by Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party were on Friday set to be the largest group in parliament, but fell short of a majority and still looked likely to be blocked from government by the nation’s powerful military and establishment parties.
With counting almost over on Friday night, independent candidates — made up overwhelmingly of PTI candidates barred from running under the party symbol — had won 97 seats, according to Pakistan’s Election Commission.
The Pakistan Muslim League-N party of three-time former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, previously favourite to emerge as the largest party, had won 66 seats. The Pakistan People’s party of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, son of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, had 51 seats.
Despite the stunning success of candidates loyal to Khan, Sharif claimed victory in Thursday’s election and said the PML-N would approach the PPP and others to form a ruling coalition.
“We do not seek conflict,” he told supporters in Lahore, calling on political leaders to together “propel Pakistan into the 21st century”.
A total of 265 seats were being contested after voting in one constituency was postponed following the killing of a candidate last week. A further 70 parliamentary seats are chosen indirectly.
“There was unprecedented turnout,” Raoof Hasan, a senior PTI member, told journalists on Friday. The former prime minister’s opponents “misread Khan’s resilience, his resolve, his determination . . . They misread his popularity.”
Even Mushahid Hussain, a senator for PML-N, wrote on social media site X early on Friday that the result appeared to be “the biggest election upset in Pakistan’s political history”.
With no clear majority, the new parliament could quickly descend into bitter and destabilising infighting.
The results, which followed a widely criticised shutdown of mobile networks on polling day, were delayed for hours. The PTI claimed this allowed officials to rig the count and reduce the number of seats it won. It has vowed to challenge the results in court and form a majority government.
Khan, a populist former cricket star, has been in jail under corruption charges since last year and was barred from contesting the election. Thousands of PTI supporters have been detained and the party’s candidates were largely unable to openly campaign.
The UN’s human rights body this week criticised what it said was a “pattern of harassment” against the PTI, while Amnesty International called Thursday’s internet shutdown “reckless” and “a blunt attack on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly”.
“The PTI-backed independents have performed much better than anyone’s expectations,” said Bilal Gilani, executive director of pollster Gallup Pakistan. “They’ve overcome the curbs on their political association through the unconstitutional, illegal means by the civilian and military establishment.”
Even if the PTI was unable to form the next government, Gilani said the result would be a challenge to the military-linked establishment’s traditional hold on political power in Pakistan. “They had to resort to everything and despite that, they don’t have a result of their choice at all,” he said.
Pakistan’s caretaker government defended the integrity of the polls, denying military interference and saying the mobile network shutdown was necessary for security.
The uncertainty and prospect of further political conflict unnerved investors, triggering a sharp fall in the prices of Pakistan’s international bonds on Friday. A dollar bond maturing in 2031 was trading at 65 cents, down from 68 cents on Thursday, according to Bloomberg data.
The new government’s priorities include addressing an economic crisis and a surge in Islamist militancy. About 40 people were killed in a spate of attacks this week, including about a dozen on Thursday.
Inflation in Pakistan hit almost 30 per cent in December, while a $3bn IMF support package that helped the country avert default last year will end in April, forcing the next government to return for new funds, in exchange for which it will need to make painful economic reforms.
Sharif, Khan’s longtime arch-nemesis, returned to Pakistan last year after four years of self-imposed exile following corruption charges. The Supreme Court last month overturned a lifetime ban on him serving in government.
Many voters, particularly young people swept up by Khan’s promises for a “new Pakistan”, were dismayed by the thought of another term under the Sharif dynasty — Nawaz’s brother Shehbaz served as prime minister last year.
“Ninety per cent of young people are with Imran Khan, but they’re scared,” said Sanya Amir, a 23-year-old student, outside a polling booth in Islamabad. “We’ve tried Nawaz Sharif three times. It’s time for Pakistan to try out something new.”
Additional reporting by Tommy Stubbington in London