Imran Khan’s party makes early gains in Pakistan election

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Pakistan’s election results were delayed on Friday following widespread turmoil on polling day, with the party of imprisoned former prime minister Imran Khan on track for a strong showing in early results despite a military-backed crackdown.

Results were available for fewer than half of the 265 parliamentary seats being contested nearly 24 hours after polls closed. Candidates running as independents, who mostly represent Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, had won 42 seats, while the Pakistan Muslim League-N party of three-time former prime minister Nawaz Sharif had won 34, according to Pakistan’s Election Commission.

The Pakistan People’s party, led by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, had 27 seats.

“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.” 

He added that the PTI appeared on track to finish with “a large number but not enough to form a government on its own”.

The uncertainty and prospect of further political conflict triggered a sharp fall in 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. 

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The early results, which followed a blanket shutdown of mobile networks on polling day, threatened to further polarise the country of 240mn. The PTI, widely considered Pakistan’s most popular party, denounced the delays and what it alleged were efforts to stop Khan — who was removed from office in a no-confidence vote in 2022 and then fell out with the powerful army — from returning to power.

The party wrote on social media platform X that it had “shocked and worried the entire system with the historic turnout”. Mushahid Hussain, a senator for PML-N, wrote on X that it was “probably the biggest election upset in Pakistan’s political history”.

Pakistan’s three-time former prime minister Nawaz Sharif speaks to reporters after casting his ballot in Lahore on Thursday
Pakistan’s three-time former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League-N party were widely seen as the frontrunners before the polls © Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images

The delays risked stoking further insecurity at a difficult time for Pakistan, which is facing 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.

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Voting in one constituency was postponed after a candidate was killed last week, and another 70 parliamentary seats are chosen indirectly.

Khan, a former cricket star and populist, has been in jail since last year and was unable to contest the election under corruption charges. Thousands of PTI supporters have been detained and the party’s candidates were largely unable to openly campaign.

The PTI alleged the mobile blackout was designed to prevent voters from accessing polling information and to suppress turnout.

The UN 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”.

Pakistan’s authorities have defended the integrity of the polls, with a caretaker government denying military interference and saying the mobile network shutdown was necessary for security.

One of the new government’s first priorities will be to address Pakistan’s economic predicament. Inflation hit nearly 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 new government to return for new funds, in exchange for which it will need to make painful economic reforms.

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Shares on the Pakistan Stock Exchange fell almost 3 per cent on Friday as investors bet a messy electoral outcome would make this harder. The counting “has caused nervousness today as such a government will have difficulty dealing with Pakistan’s lenders”, said Mohammed Sohail of Karachi brokerage Topline Securities.

Nawaz Sharif, who returned to Pakistan last year after four years of self-imposed exile from corruption charges, told journalists on Thursday that only his party could resolve the country’s crises. “If you are to solve the problems of Pakistan, one party ought to get a majority,” he said. “The ruling structure must not depend on anyone else.”

Sharif had been facing a lifetime ban from office under the conviction, until the Supreme Court overturned it last month.

To the many voters, particularly young people swept up by Khan’s promises for a “new Pakistan”, the prospect of another term under the Sharif dynasty — Nawaz’s brother Shehbaz also served as prime minister last year — left little hope.

“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