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 early tallies from Pakistan’s election, after a long delay in results added to accusations of poll rigging.

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 9:00 am (0400 GMT) – more than 16 hours after polling stations closed – the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) had announced just 13 National Assembly results.

Campaign workers monitor results at the offices of former premier Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party

Five had gone to independent candidates linked to PTI, four to the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), and four to the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).

“Independents spring surprise, PTI-backed candidates defy odds,” said the headline of the English-language Express Tribune newspaper on Friday.

“There was a sense of certainty about the outcome,” Sarah Khan, an assistant professor of political science at Yale University, told AFP.

“That sense of certainty got upset very early on,” she added. “It’s definitely not the foregone conclusion that anybody thought it might be.”

Before the first results were officially 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.

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

The 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.

Party spokeswoman Marriyum Aurangzeb said they were still hopeful of taking the largest province of Punjab, crucial to forming a government.

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

The election commission had earlier blamed “internet problems” for a delay in results, but said they would now “be flowing in continuously”.

“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.

- Rigging fears -

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

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.

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.

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

Allegations of poll rigging overshadowed the election, as well as authorities’ voting day shutdown of the country’s mobile phone network – ostensibly on security grounds.

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.

- Security efforts -

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.

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

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.