Pakistan was gripped by electoral chaos on Thursday with the results from its pivotal general elections delayed and major parties denouncing “blatant rigging,” as former cricket champion Imran Khan appeared on course for victory.
Results were still being tallied on Thursday, hours after Khan’s supporters took to the streets to celebrate winning an election that opponents have alleged was rigged in his favor.
The unprecedented delay, along with a surprisingly strong lead in early results for Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, have fueled widespread fears over the legitimacy of the exercise. Newspapers and television channels have been predicting victory for PTI since late Wednesday. By Thursday partial, unofficial results gave him at least 100 seats so far in the National Assembly, the Lower House of Parliament.
A majority of 137 seats is needed to form a government.
Khan’s ex-wife, British film producer Jemima Goldsmith, tweeted her congratulations. “22 years later, after humiliations, hurdles and sacrifices, my sons’ father is Pakistan’s next PM,” she wrote.
The Election Commission of Pakistan dismissed allegations of manipulation, blaming the delay on glitches in new, untested counting software. “These elections were 100 percent fair and transparent,” said Chief Election Commissioner Sardar Muhammad Raza early Thursday as the outcry grew.
Election authorities have not yet confirmed when they expect to announce the results. Some reports suggested it would not be until Thursday evening at the earliest. Election observers including a mission from the European Union are due to give their own observations on the voting process on Friday.
Late Wednesday, the once-mighty Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), which had been in power since 2013, rejected the results because of “outright rigging,” and vowed it would use “all political and legal options for redress of these glaring excesses.”
“What they have done has pushed Pakistan back 30 years… People will not bear it,” the party’s leader Shahbaz Sharif, brother of jailed former premier Nawaz Sharif, said. He said the party was due to meet Thursday to decide a way forward.
Other major parties also alleged fraud, including the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), whose chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari echoed the PMLN’s claim that party representatives were barred from monitoring the count.
The size of Khan’s lead against the PMLN, when many analysts had predicted a coalition would be likely, was also increasing concern over the process, analysts said. “The surprisingly high seat total for PTI, even as the votes continue to be counted, will be enough to trigger the suspicions of the PPP and PMLN,” said Michael Kugelman, an analyst at the Wilson Center in Washington.
At least one party—Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), which blockaded the capital Islamabad for weeks last year over blasphemy—has already announced they are planning protests. “This is complete chaos,” said political analyst Azeema Cheema, who said she was “very concerned” about what comes next. “It depends on how the civilian disobedience is being organized. You may have spontaneous riots among political party workers. Then maybe political parties will organize sit-ins and demonstrations,” she told AFP.
Kugelman shared the concern. “I don’t see any way to prevent a period of turmoil,” he told AFP.
But PTI supporters were ecstatic at the projected results. First-time voter Fahad Hussain, 21, said the party had “motivated the youth” as he hit the streets in Islamabad to celebrate with friends.
The controversy follows a campaign already considered by some observers to be one of the “dirtiest” in Pakistan’s history because of allegations of rigging, and marked by the increased visibility of extremist religious parties.
Khan, who captained Pakistan to their World Cup cricket victory in 1992, vowed to tackle widespread graft while building an “Islamic welfare state.” But he was dogged by the accusations he was benefiting from a “silent coup” by the establishment, which targeted the PMLN. Nawaz Sharif was ousted from power last year and jailed over a corruption conviction days before the vote, removing Khan’s most dangerous rival.
Khan has also increasingly catered to hardline religious groups, sparking fears a win for PTI could embolden Islamist extremists.