Voting in Pakistan’s elections ended on Thursday, and even though the votes were still being tabulated on Friday, early results showed Islamist former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) party taking the lead.
The tally was an impressive achievement, given that Khan has been jailed and banned from politics for a decade and that PTI was all but erased from the ballot.
The status of the election was murky because many PTI candidates ran as independents after the party’s name and symbol were banned from ballots by court order in January. The loss of the symbol, a cricket bat to honor Khan’s days as a star player, was especially devastating because Pakistan’s functionally illiterate rural voters use symbols to find their preferred candidates on ballots.
Independent and PTI-backed candidates held the lead with 97 parliamentary wins as of Friday afternoon, followed by 66 for the center-right Pakistan Muslim League (PMLN) and 51 for the left-wing Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). The final results are due to be announced on Friday night.
Al Jazeera News reported rumors swirling on the streets of Lahore that the vote had been rigged and people would be angry enough to riot when they discovered their ballots were not properly counted. Two deaths have already been reported from election-related violence in northwestern Pakistan.
British election observers said they had “serious concerns over the fairness and lack of inclusivity” in the elections, including Internet blackouts, irregularities in ballot reporting, and “legal processes” deployed to keep some candidates from participating.
PTI leaders predicted a major victory when the votes had all been counted, while PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif was equally confident that his party would hold the most seats when the dust settled.
“We are all congratulating today because, in these elections, PML-N has emerged as the largest party in the country,” Sharif declared in his possibly premature victory speech.
Sharif said he asked his brother Shehbaz, who was prime minister until he retired in August, to contact the leaders of the PPP and several other parties and begin assembling a coalition government.
“We don’t have enough of a majority to form a government without the support of others, and we invite allies to join the coalition so we can make joint efforts to pull Pakistan out of its problems,” he said.
Nawaz Sharif, 74, has served three previous terms as prime minister and would likely be PML-N’s candidate for the job again if he can put together a coalition with enough votes.
Imran Khan also released a “victory speech” on Friday, posted to his account on Twitter:
Chairman Imran Khan’s victory speech (AI version) after an unprecedented fightback from the nation that resulted in PTI’s landslide victory in General Elections 2024. pic.twitter.com/Z6GiLwCVCR
— Imran Khan (@ImranKhanPTI) February 9, 2024
Khan’s speech was created with artificial intelligence software (AI) because he is legally barred from giving political speeches under the terms of his imprisonment. He has approved scripts that were read by computer simulations of his face and voice on previous occasions.
In the speech, Khan said the massive turnout of PTI supporters “shocked everyone” — and he strongly implied that if PTI is not declared winner of the election, it will have been stolen through fraud.
Khan dismissed Sharif as a “petty man” and insisted that “no Pakistan will accept him” if he is somehow declared winner of the election. He claimed even international media outlets were mocking the “stupidity” of PML-N’s claims to a majority of the vote.
“My fellow Pakistanis, you have made history. I am proud of you, and I give thanks to Allah for uniting the nation. Now, no one can stop us,” he boasted.
Khan advised PTI supporters to “celebrate and give thanks to Allah” because “despite two years of oppression and injustice, we won the election with a two-thirds majority.”
“Everyone has seen the strength of your vote; now be prepared to protect your vote,” he concluded ominously.
PTI voters rioted across the country after Khan was arrested in May, causing at least six fatalities and destroying massive amounts of property, including property owned by Pakistan’s powerful military establishment. The riots were one of the main reasons Khan was banned from politics, and his party was severely handicapped in the election.
PTI officials released a statement on Friday congratulating their voters for flocking to the polls despite “notable interference” and “pre-election manipulation” from the government.
The statement said PTI candidates were “leading convincingly in several constituencies,” but a “noticeable slowdown in the announcement of final results” was keeping their victories from being confirmed and could indicate vote-rigging was in progress.
PTI leaders dismissed Nawaz Sharif as a “failed fugitive” who returned to Pakistan under the “patronage” of the military and foreign powers and asserted any outcome short of PTI victory in the final count would be “fabricated.” They also said one of the first tasks of the new “democratically-elected government” should be releasing Khan from jail and making him prime minister.