Pakistan election workers open ballot boxes as they begin counting votes in the country's national election

Islamabad (AFP) - Candidates loyal to jailed former prime minister Imran Khan edged ahead in Pakistan’s election Friday, in front of the two dynastic parties believed favoured by the military, as the vote count entered its final leg.

Khan was barred from contesting Thursday’s election and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party was subject to a sweeping crackdown – blocked from holding rallies and taken off the ballot, forcing candidates to run as independents.

But the latest results in a slow counting process showed PTI loyalists had so far won around 70 of the more than 200 seats called for the 266-member national assembly. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) had won around 60 and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) around 40 as night fell Friday.

Most of the seats won by PTI-backed candidates were in its stronghold of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, while results were still coming in for the most populous province of Punjab, won by PTI in the last election but where the family of former premier Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N has historically held sway.

Unofficial tallies on local TV stations had independents in the lead for many of the remaining seats up for grabs.

Candidates who run as independents can nominate affiliation to any party within 72 hours of victory – a practice that frequently leads to horse-trading and deal-making in Pakistan politics and which could imperil PTI’s success.

'Independents spring surprise' blared the headline of the English-language Express Tribune on Friday

“But even if PTI is unable to form a government, the elections show there are limits to political engineering,” said Bilal Gilani, executive director of polling group Gallup Pakistan.

“It shows that the military does not always get their way – that is the silver lining,” he told AFP.

The election was marred by violence, mostly in the border regions neighbouring Afghanistan, with 61 attacks nationwide, the interior ministry said Friday.

At least 16 people were killed – including 10 security force members – and 54 wounded.

More than 650,000 army, paramilitary and police personnel were deployed to provide security.

- Slow process -

The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) said the delay in results was due to a day-long mobile network shutdown imposed by the government during voting on Thursday.

But the hold-up stoked allegations ballots were being tampered with. In northwestern Peshawar city, some 2,000 PTI supporters blocked an arterial road trailing party flags and chanting “We need justice!”

“Our results have been changed,” claimed 28-year-old shopkeeper Muhammad Saleem. “The government should recount all of our votes.”

Burqa-clad women line up to cast their ballots in Pakistan's national election on Thursday

“The delaying tactics speak loudly of the results being rigged and there is no other reason behind the delay,” Nisar Ahmed, a 45-year-old shop owner, told AFP in the southern city of Karachi.

Sadaf Farooqi, a 40-year schoolteacher, added there could be “no other reason except the results are being tampered with”.

Sharif’s PML-N had been expected to win the most seats following Thursday’s vote, with analysts saying its 74-year-old founder had the blessing of the military-led establishment.

PML-N spokeswoman Marriyum Aurangzeb said they were still hopeful of taking Punjab, crucial to forming a government.

The PPP, which also has strong links to the military but whose popularity is largely limited to its Sindh heartland, appeared to be doing better than expected, with leader Bilawal Bhutto Zardari saying early results were “very encouraging”.

The PML-N and PPP joined forces with minor parties to boot Khan from office in April 2022 after his PTI had won a slender majority in the 2018 election.

Khan then waged an unprecedented campaign of defiance against the military-led establishment that originally backed his rise to power.

He was convicted last week of treason, graft and having an un-Islamic marriage in three separate trials – among nearly 200 cases brought against him since being ousted.

- Rigging fears -

Allegations of poll rigging overshadowed election day itself, as well as authorities’ hours-long shutdown of Pakistan’s mobile phone network.

“A concerted effort has been made to hijack the election,” PTI information secretary Raoof Hasan told AFP late Friday.

“They were not successful because there is deep-seated commitment to Khan among the people.”

Caretaker Interior Minister Gohar Ejaz defended the “difficult decision” to suspend mobile phone services on security grounds.

“We were fully aware that suspension of mobile services would impact the transmission of election results across Pakistan and delay the process, however, the choice between this delay and safety of our citizens was quite straightforward,” he said in a statement on Friday.

Digital rights activist Usama Khilji said the mobile service blackout “strengthens the popular perception that the elections are rigged by the deep state”.

But Mohammad Zubair, a 19-year-old street hawker in Lahore, said PTI supporters would not accept a PML-N victory.

“Everyone knows how many seats Khan’s independent candidates have won,” he said. “They don’t have a symbol, or a captain, or a flag, or banners but still we have won on the field.”