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 with just over half the count completed.

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 49 seats in the 266-member national assembly, against 42 for the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and 34 for the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), with just over half of constituencies called.

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 have 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 -

On Friday, coming up to 24 hours after polls closed, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) announced half of all results of the National Assembly seat winners, attributing the delay to a day-long mobile network shutdown imposed by the government during voting on Thursday.

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.

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.

PLM-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 also overshadowed the election, as well as authorities’ voting day shutdown of Pakistan’s mobile phone network.

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”.

Raoof Hasan, PTI’s secretary for information, said in a video statement that party agents in the field had reported PTI candidates leading in 125 constituencies.

“An effort may be afoot to tamper with the results,” he said of the delay in announcements from ECP headquarters.

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.”