Lahore, Pakistan – Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party led polls in the country’s general election, while rival parties claimed widespread irregularities and alleged coercion of their candidates by the military.
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In the eastern city of Lahore, capital of Punjab province and the country’s political heartland, PTI supporters rejoiced, waving flags and raising party slogans late into the night on Wednesday as the party celebrated what it considered a sweeping win across the country’s 272 National Assembly constituencies.
While final results are expected in the coming hours, initial outcomes suggested the PTI will emerge as the largest single party in the national government.
The party’s rivals, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), both raised concerns about the procedure through which results were issued, alleging their polling agents were not allowed to verify vote counts, as is mandated by law.
“We completely reject this result, completely,” said Shehbaz Sharif, leader of the incumbent PML-N party, at a late night press conference in Lahore. “We will not tolerate this, and the people will use everything in their power to regain their rights. This is clear rigging, and we do not accept these results.”
The PPP, led by Bhutto dynasty scion Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, also alleged similar irregularities in constituencies in its stronghold of Sindh province.
Both parties said they would announce their course of action on Thursday, while PTI dismissed accusations of malfeasance.
More than a 105 million Pakistanis were eligible to vote in the general election, which saw thousands of candidates competing for 272 seats in the lower house of parliament, as well as 577 provincial assembly seats.
The ruling PML-N was dealt several blows in the run-up to the polls, seeing dozens of defections, as well as the conviction and arrest of its former chief, Nawaz Sharif, for corruption earlier this month.
Violence and ‘manipulation’
Violence marred the knife-edge election in Pakistan as a suicide bomber killed at least 31 people. The attacker targeted a police vehicle in the provincial capital of Balochistan, wounding at least 40 others, said senior police official Aitzaz Goraya.
Incidents of firing and grenade attacks on polling stations were also reported from the Khuzdar district in Balochistan, Larkana in Sindh province and elsewhere.
Despite the violence, polls across the country stayed open until 6pm (13:00 GMT), as some polling stations saw long lines as the day wore on.
On July 16, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), an independent rights watchdog, decried “blatant, aggressive and unabashed attempts to manipulate the outcome of the upcoming elections”.
It also documented widespread censorship of the press, in line with allegations that the military had intimidated journalists when reporting on politics and security issues.
At an election rally to close his campaign on Monday, Khan dismissed the allegations as “a foreign conspiracy”.
Shift in Punjab?
Punjab province, the country’s most populous, holds 141 of the country’s 272 directly elected seats, and the key to forming the government.
As the clock wound down to the close of voting, dozens of women crowded the desk of an election official at a polling station located within the historic Delhi Gate in Lahore.
The official, a retired civil servant, seemed to be having trouble reading their documents. Nearby, an army soldier – one of more than 371,000 deployed for these polls – watched on.
“Nawaz Sharif’s only crime is to have done so much for the city of Lahore,” shouted Rehana Kausar, 60, who has lived in the neighbourhood her entire life.
Despite Kausar complaining of polling delays at her station, she was confident the PML-N – which has dominated seats in Punjab over the last three decades – would hold onto its political heartland.
Elsewhere, anger with the alleged conspiracy to unseat the PML-N was apparent among some voters.
“Now the army, the intelligence agencies and the judiciary are taking sides,” said PML-N voter Tariq Ateeq Sheikh, 50, a property dealer in Lahore’s Walton neighbourhood.
“They’ve become touts for the PTI.”
PML-N alleges the country’s powerful military – which has ruled Pakistan for roughly half of its 70-year history and has often sparred with Sharif over control of security and foreign policy – is behind a campaign that tilted the electoral playing field in favour of Khan’s PTI.
But the PML-N was dealt several blows in the run-up to the polls. Sharif was convicted by an anti-corruption court and returned to the country to turn himself in, alongside his daughter Maryam, on July 13.
This left many voters disillusioned and unwilling to vote for Sharif.
“I was going to vote for Nawaz Sharif, but the way that he lied on the floor of the house, that convinced me that I couldn’t vote for him,” said Ahmed Ali Malik, a retired banker who flew in from Manchester to vote at Lahore’s Delhi Gate.