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Business News/ Politics / Pakistan election turmoil deepens as Imran Khan's party calls for protests
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Pakistan election turmoil deepens as Imran Khan's party calls for protests

wsj

The party of the jailed opposition leader demanded that authorities allow it to form a government, and brought court challenges against some results.

Pakistan’s powerful military had backed Nawaz Sharif (left) in the general election, but candidates linked to Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party's jailed leader Imran Khan won the most seats, though short of the number required to form a government.Premium
Pakistan’s powerful military had backed Nawaz Sharif (left) in the general election, but candidates linked to Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party's jailed leader Imran Khan won the most seats, though short of the number required to form a government.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan—A confrontation between the jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan and Pakistan’s authorities intensified on Saturday, as his party called for protests against election officials, and mounted court challenges over results they allege were tampered with to deny them a majority.

In Thursday’s election, Pakistan’s powerful military had backed Khan’s main rival, Nawaz Sharif, according to politicians on both sides. But candidates linked to Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party won the most seats, though short of the number required to form a government, in what political experts said was a rebuke by voters for decades of political interventions by the country’s powerful army.

Khan, a former cricket champion, was ousted from office in a parliamentary vote in 2022 after he clashed with the military. He then waged a campaign of rallies against the army’s influence.

On Saturday, Khan’s party demanded to be allowed to form a government, even as the country’s two other main parties advanced talks on Saturday over forming a coalition government, seen as the most likely outcome now.

Official results—which are still not complete—were delayed after Thursday’s vote, deepening concerns over irregularities in the election. The Election Commission has said that the long delay in announcing election results was due to internet connectivity problems. As polls opened, and mobile-phone services were suspended nationwide, it assured voters the vote would be free and fair.

Allegations of rigging from Khan’s party grew Saturday. The election authority didn’t respond to a request for comment.

“I say to the prime institution, I say to the Election Commission, I say to the judiciary, that this was the voice of the people," said Gohar Khan, who is heading the party while Khan is in jail, apparently referring to the military. “The economy will not be able to survive, this democracy will not be able to survive, if you suppress the voice of the people, overturn the wishes of the people, to make a government of your liking."

The military admits to interfering in politics in the past, but says it no longer does so.

By Saturday, with almost all the results in, Khan’s party had taken at least 90 seats of the 265 seats being contested. Independents had taken 102 seats altogether so far, but a handful of them weren’t associated with Khan’s party. 

The party’s candidates were forced to run as independents after a January court ruling that also barred them from using the party’s well-known cricket bat symbol on ballots.

Separately, Khan was barred from running in this election.

The party said that it believed it had actually swept the polls despite the hurdles in its way, but that manipulation had reduced its haul of seats, said Gohar Khan. In at least 22 seats, the announced results were at odds with the official documentation it had in its possession, known as Form 45, which records the count at each polling station, he said.

Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N took 73 seats. Sharif said Friday that his party would be able to form a coalition with other parties. The Pakistan Peoples Party, which would be needed for such a coalition, said it is too early to say who will form the government. A minimum 137 seats are required for a majority in parliament.

In a possibly risky move, Khan’s party called for protests on Sunday outside the offices of election officials in locations across the country where it believes the results were tampered with. Protests from the party in May, over Khan’s arrest, prompted a crackdown on the party, and thousands of arrests.

Khan’s party said it would remain peaceful.

The information minister of the interim government, which oversees the election period, said Friday that the fact that Khan’s party had emerged as the biggest from the election contradicted its allegations.

There were changes overnight to the counting after polls closed on election day Thursday, according to dozens of court challenges brought over the announced results for parliamentary seats around the country by Khan’s candidates.

The challenges included the seat won by three-time Prime Minister Sharif, in his hometown of Lahore. That victory is being contested in court by the lawyers of his opponent, Yasmin Rashid, a 73-year-old former provincial health minister and cancer survivor, who is in jail after she was arrested in the crackdown on Khan’s party. He lost the other seat he contested, in the north of the country—politicians are allowed to fight in more than one area.

Marriyum Aurangzeb, a spokeswoman for Sharif’s party, said it was also pursuing legal challenges in some seats.

“Whoever has concerns over irregularities should and must utilize legal forums available," said Aurangzeb.

With Imran Khan himself unable to deliver a victory address, his party released a message generated by artificial intelligence to sound like him, which congratulated his following and told them that they had “laid the foundation for true freedom with your votes."

The military has appealed for stability.

“The nation needs stable hands and a healing touch to move on from the politics of anarchy and polarization," said a statement Saturday from the military.

Pakistan’s allies have raised concerns with the election, with the European Union saying that there was a lack of a level playing field and the U.S. calling for an investigation into claims of electoral interference and fraud.

Pakistan’s foreign ministry Saturday said the foreign criticism failed to “acknowledge the free and enthusiastic exercise of the right to vote by tens of millions of Pakistanis." It added that “Pakistan will continue to work toward building a vibrant democratic polity."

Civil society groups in Pakistan have also said there were irregularities.

“Very comprehensive, very widespread, rigging has taken place," said Sarwar Bari, national coordinator of Pattan, a local nongovernmental organization that was involved in monitoring the election. “But, despite all their efforts, it failed."

Salman Akram Raja, the party’s candidate on a seat in Lahore, said that his lead was over 90,000 ahead of his opponent, on the official documentation he had from election night. On Friday, after he lost the seat by a margin of more than 13,000, according to the Election Commission, Raja took the issue to court, which issued an order to hold up the announcement of that seat.

“It is just unbelievable," said Raja. “I didn’t think a 100,000 lead would just evaporate overnight."

Legal challenges over election results could drag on for years.

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