Pakistan election: Imran Khan’s PTI-backed candidates pose tough challenge to Nawaz Sharif’s PMLN

Jailed ex-premier Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party-backed independents were Thursday leading in a number of constituencies across the country, giving a tough challenge to former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N in its stronghold Punjab, according to initial trends of the elections marred by sporadic violence.

Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Imran Khan (AFP)

The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) had deprived jailed 71-year-old former cricketer-turned-politician’s party of the electoral symbol of ‘bat’ over its failure to hold intra-party polls according to its Constitution, forcing it to field independent candidates.

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The polling started at 8.00 AM and continued without any break till 5.00 PM. A countrywide public holiday was declared to enable more than 12 crore voters to cast their ballots. The polling percentage is not yet known. In the 2018 elections, overall voter turnout across the nation was 51.7 per cent.

Counting of votes began following the conclusion of the polling and the results of individual polling stations started to pour in after the mandatory one hour restriction ended. But it may take a couple of hours before the complete result of any constituency is available.

In total 266 National Assembly seats were up for grabs out of 336, but polling was postponed on at least one seat after a candidate was killed in a gun attack in Bajaur. Another 60 seats are reserved for women and 10 for minorities, and are allotted to the winning parties based on proportional representation.

A party must win 133 seats out of 265 being contested to form the next government.

Private TV channels began reporting results on the basis of partial counting, which showed that Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and PTI-supported independent candidates were neck-in-neck in the most populous Punjab province, which sends almost half of the representatives to the National Assembly. In most of the constituencies, the candidates of the two parties were either leading or in second place.

PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif, the 74-year-old three-time former premier who is eying the premiership for a record fourth term, was trailing behind PTI-backed independent candidate Dr Yasmin Rashid in Lahore’s NA-130.

Similarly, PPP chief Bilawal Bhutto Zardari was trailing in Lahore’s NA-127. However, Sharif’s younger brother Shehbaz was ahead of his rivals in Lahore’s NA-123.

PTI vice chairman Shah Mahmood Qureshi’s daughter Meher Bano Qureshi, running as an independent candidate, was ahead of her rivals in NA-151 (Multan).

The PTI has claimed that election results across the country are being delayed after Khan’s candidate emerged victorious.

“There are reports of closure of the screens in the offices of returning officers in several circles,” PTI’s Omary Ayub alleged in a video message posted on X.

In Sindh, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) candidates were leading in most of the constituencies, with its leaders Bilawal and Asif Ali Zardari ahead in their constituencies. But the situation in Karachi, the capital of Sindh with 22 National Assembly seats, was different and Muttahida Qaumi Movement and PTI candidates were performing better.

In Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, independent candidates supported by the PTI were leading on most national and provincial assembly seats. Former PTI minister Ali Muhammad Khan was leading in the Mardan area, while former PTI speaker of the National Assembly, Asad Qaisar, was leading in Swabi. Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Fazl of Maulana Fazlur Rehman was also doing well in some districts.

Balochistan, which is the largest province but sends only 15 lawmakers to the parliament, showed mixed results and none of the party was in the clear lead.

All the results so far reported by the media channels are unofficial and may drastically change as counting progresses. The official results of a constituency is announced by the relevant returning officer after tabulating complete results of all polling stations in that constituency.

Sharif has expressed confidence that his party would win elections.

The ECP said it has resolved 76 poll-related complaints, which were received throughout the day.

According to the ECP spokesperson Haroon Shinwari, most of the complaints were of a “normal nature” involving confrontations between political workers in different areas which were resolved on the spot.

Soon after the voting started, mobile services in Pakistan were suspended due to the “deteriorating security situation”, a day after twin terror attacks killed at least 30 people in Balochistan province.

Despite the suspension of cellular and internet services, a large number of people across Pakistan exercised their right to vote to elect lawmakers for national and provincial assemblies – on 855 constituencies.

Amnesty International criticised the decision to suspend mobile phone and internet service on the day of election, calling it “a blunt attack on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly”.

In the evening, the Interior Ministry said mobile phone services have been partially restored in parts of the country.

At least 12 people, including 10 security personnel, were killed on the election day as the forces repulsed 51 terrorist attacks aimed at disrupting the polling. Nearly 650,000 security personnel were deployed across the country to ensure peaceful polls.

Caretaker Prime Minister Anwaarul Haq Kakar has congratulated the nation on what he called “successful conduct” of “free and fair” elections.

Pakistan’s Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Sikandar Sultan Raja earlier said that elections will be held in a peaceful atmosphere.

According to the ECP, a total of 5,121 candidates are in the race for the National Assembly (NA) seats. These include 4,807 male, 312 female and two transgenders. For the four provincial assemblies, 12,695 candidates are in the field including 12,123 males, 570 women and two transgenders.

Khan’s PTI after falling out with the powerful establishment complained of pressure and lack of space to carry out its campaign. The party has been subjected to a nationwide state clampdown, with hundreds of workers and candidates arrested and released only after quitting the party or withdrawing from the election.

Pakistan’s history since 1947 has been riddled with the Army sidelining elected governments.

Khan is jailed on corruption charges and is barred from standing. He is serving at least 14 years in prison, having been sentenced in three separate cases in the space of five days last week. He still faces over 140 charges in different cases.

Whoever wins the polls will find a daunting task ahead due to the dwindling economy and deteriorating security situation.

Last year, the country narrowly averted a default when the International Monetary Fund provided a USD 3 billion short-term loan.

Economic experts believe that the new government would need an urgent new IMF programme on more stringent conditions.

Pakistan’s more than two-decades-old fight against terrorism is also unravelling as the rebels have resurged since 2021 after the Afghan Taliban came to power.

The new government will find it tougher to deal with the militancy by the banned Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan and Baloch nationalists.

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