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 were edging ahead in Pakistan’s election, in front of the two dynastic parties believed to be favoured by the military, as delayed results trickled in.

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

But official results showed independents backed by PTI had won around 46 seats so far, against 38 for the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), and 31 for the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).

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 Sharif family have historically held sway.

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

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

“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.”

The election was marred by violence, mostly in the border regions neighbouring Afghanistan, with a total of 61 attacks nationwide, the interior ministry said Friday, killing 16 people including at least 10 security force members and wounding 54 others.

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

- A quarter of votes counted -

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

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

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.

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

PLM-N spokeswoman Marriyum Aurangzeb said they were still hopeful of taking the largest province of 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.

Last week he was convicted 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 the election, as well as authorities’ voting day shutdown of the country’s mobile phone network.

On Friday, the 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.

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.”