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

Islamabad (AFP) - Independent candidates linked to jailed former prime minister Imran Khan were outperforming expectations Friday in Pakistan’s election, local TV tallies showed, as a slow trickle of 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.

By 6 am (0100 GMT) – more than 13 hours after polling stations closed – the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) had announced just eight National Assembly results, with three seats going to PTI-linked candidates.

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

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

The Pakistan Muslim League party of former premier Nawaz Sharif (pictured on a campaign poster) is performing poorly in early returns, according to local TV

“Why did they take so long? Why not announce results before 1 am?” asked Ambreen Naz, 35, a businesswoman in Lahore.

“You know what will happen now? The stock market will open with volatile swings. The dollar will rise and the rupee will fall. All because they delayed the results and made them controversial,” she told AFP.

Earlier, before the first results were announced, PTI chief organiser Omar Ayub Khan said he was confident the party had done enough.

“Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf-backed independent candidates have the ability to form the next federal government with a two-thirds majority,” he said in a video statement released to media.

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.

Election officials count ballot papers after the closing of polls in Pakistan

But local TV channels said the party had performed poorly –- with Sharif trailing his opponent in one of the constituencies he contested and his brother Shehbaz – appointed prime minister after Khan was ousted in April 2022 – behind in another.

Pakistan politicians can stand for multiple seats, a frequent spoiling tactic used by parties to inject vote-winning personalities into marginal constituencies.

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.

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

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.

People run out of a polling station in Quetta, reportedly after a hand grenade attack during Pakistan's national elections

“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 force members – 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.