Sharif suggested in a speech late Friday that his party would seek to form a broad coalition government. “Since we don’t have a clear majority, we will reach out,” he said, “to steer the country out of the quagmire it is in.”
Sharif’s outreach, however, is unlikely to include the leadership of Khan’s party, which continues to be deeply at odds with Pakistan’s establishment and is unlikely to return to power, despite the races won by people associated with it.
But a future government could include some candidates who ran on the ticket of Khan’s party. All of its candidates had been ordered by a court to run as independents in the lead-up to the election, which now opens up the possibility of rival parties poaching some of them in the coming days. This could turn upcoming coalition talks into a particularly fraught process and deepen polarization between Khan’s supporters and his opponents in this nuclear-armed country of 240 million.
Khan, who was arrested in August after a court convicted him of corruption, is still in jail and buried under multiple lawsuits. He did not run in this election, and his party would have no obvious coalition partner in the parliament. Sharif’s party has a clearer path to power if it can form a coalition with the Pakistan People’s Party, led by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari who represents another major Pakistani political family.
But the provisional results of Thursday’s vote still pointed to lingering support for the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or PTI, which was politically sidelined by the Pakistani establishment after Khan ran afoul of the military two years ago.
“Your massive turnout has surprised everyone,” Khan told his supporters in an AI-generated speech from prison Friday night. “By voting, you have laid the foundation for true freedom.”
Its supporters say Khan’s party has been all but dismantled over the past year, with many of its leaders arrested and its offices raided. As vote-counting appeared to slow Thursday night, the remnants of the party’s leadership raised the possibility of electoral fraud.
“We demand that there should be no manipulation of results,” said Omar Ayub Khan, the PTI’s secretary general. The PTI’s leadership called on its supporters to assemble outside polling stations to demand a fair counting process.
In a statement, the U.S. State Department condemned “electoral violence, restrictions on the exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including attacks on media workers, and restrictions on access to the Internet and telecommunication services” and said it was “concerned about allegations of interference in the electoral process.”
There were some initial reports of protests by PTI supporters over electoral fraud allegations in parts of the country Friday. Two people were killed in northwestern Pakistan after PTI supporters clashed with police over claims of vote fraud there, officials said.
“There is a strong likelihood of more instability,” cautioned Pakistani political analyst Ijaz Khattak, especially if the PTI’s supporters feel that their candidates are being coerced into joining other parties.
When Khan was arrested on corruption charges early last year, the country witnessed days of clashes between security forces and his supporters. Pakistan’s government later compared those riots to the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, by supporters of Donald Trump.
Khan’s party has rejected those comparisons, saying that most of its supporters protested peacefully. But the PTI has warned that it may not be able to control its supporters’ fury if what they perceive as an election victory is taken away from them.
Pakistani authorities cited security concerns to justify a nationwide shutdown of all mobile internet and cellphone connections starting early Thursday, when voting got underway, but the PTI alleged that the measures were part of a sophisticated attempt to manipulate the election.
Pakistan’s caretaker interior minister, Gohar Ejaz, defended the shutdown Friday, saying it was “not an easy decision” but necessary to deter militants who may have tried to attack polling stations with remote-control devices. Mobile internet services were restored across large parts of Pakistan by Friday morning.
Pakistan’s military said that despite precautions, 12 people were killed in 51 attacks “aimed at disrupting the electoral process” in the remote Baluchistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces — a toll that appeared to be lower than some worst-case scenarios in the run-up to the election.
Nawaz Khan reported from Peshawar, Pakistan.