Pakistan election officials count votes after the closing of polls

Islamabad (AFP) - Independent candidates linked to jailed former prime minister Imran Khan appeared Friday to be heading to victory in Pakistan’s election, local media tallies said, as a long delay in official results sparked fears of a fix.

Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) was barred from contesting Thursday’s election as a bloc, but unofficial tallies by local TV channels showed independent candidates – including dozens anointed by his party – leading in the most constituencies.

The first two official results – with both seats going to PTI candidates – were announced shortly after 4:30 am (2330 GMT) more than 11 hours after polling ended.

The ECP had earlier blamed “internet problems” for the delay.

The TV stations were basing their projections on counting done at the local constituency level.

“Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf-backed independent candidates have the ability to form the next federal government with a two-thirds majority,” PTI chief organiser Omar Ayub Khan said in a video statement released to media after midnight.

Hundreds of PTI supporters took to the streets of Peshawar, capital of Khan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province heartland, to celebrate what they claimed was victory despite the lack of any official results.

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

But local TV channels said the party had performed poorly –- with Sharif trailing his opponent in one of the constituencies he contested.

The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) appeared to be doing better than expected, with leader Bilawal Bhutto Zardari saying early results were “very encouraging”.

- Rigging fears -

Pollsters predicted a low turnout from the country’s 128 million eligible voters following a lacklustre campaign overshadowed by the jailing of Khan, and the hobbling of PTI through court orders, a ban on rallies, and the harassment of party leaders.

Allegations of poll rigging overshadowed the election, and a voting day shutdown by authorities of the country’s mobile phone network – ostensibly on security grounds – added fuel to the fire.

Roof Hassan, PTI’s secretary for information, said in a video statement on social media platform X 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.

Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, told AFP the delay “suggests that the powers that be are trying to create an environment that allows them to more easily be involved in the electoral process”.

“Vote tampering and rigging fears are rife, and for good reason,” he said more bluntly on X.

Earlier, millions of Pakistanis braved cold winter weather and the threat of militant attacks to cast their ballots.

“My only fear is whether my vote will be counted for the same party I cast it for,” said Syed Tassawar, a 39-year-old construction worker

First-time voter Haleema Shafiq, a 22-year-old psychology student, said she believed in the importance of voting.

“I believe in democracy. I want a government that can make Pakistan safer for girls,” she told AFP in Islamabad.

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

There were a total of 51 attacks nationwide, the army said, killing a dozen people including 10 security forces – fewer than in 2018, when dozens were killed.

Thursday’s election had a similar air to that poll, but with the tables turned.

Then, it was Sharif who was disqualified from running because of a string of convictions for graft, while Khan swept to power with the backing of the military, as well as genuine support.

The history of Pakistan’s elections is chequered with allegations of rigging but also favouritism, said Bilal Gilani, executive director of polling group Gallup Pakistan.

“It’s a managed democracy that the military runs,” he said.