Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) party was leading the early vote count after Wednesday’s elections in Pakistan, but the unofficial results were being disputed by dozens of candidates who lodged complaints of vote rigging.

Khan’s party was leading in 114 of the 272 National Assembly seats. After decades in politics Khan, who is seen by many as the army’s favorite candidate, looks set to lead the Islamic nuclear state. His party’s victory comes as Pakistan faces a grave economic crisis as well as international isolation.

Vote counting was temporarily stopped at 2am on Thursday after what was described as a “technical glitch” in the electronic reporting system. The elections were also marred by an attack by a suicide bomber in the city of Quetta, which left at least 31 dead and more than 40 injured.

With 137 seats needed to form a majority, the PTI looks set to lead a coalition government headed by Khan as the prime minister. “Felicitations for Naya [New] Pakistan to the nation. Prime Minister Imran Khan,” tweeted PTI spokesperson Fawad Chaudhry late on Wednesday night.

Khan owes a lot of his popularity to the fact that he once captained Pakistan’s cricket team, which won the World Cup in 1992. A charismatic leader, he had a reputation as a playboy and married several times. He was recently embarrassed by a tell-all expose by his former wife Reham Khan.

Since becoming a politician, Khan has steadily embraced a more radical religious line and is expected to reinforce that image once he takes over as prime minister.

Meanwhile, not surprisingly the election was marred by allegations of rigging by the major rival of Khan’s PTI. The allegations were led by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), which was in second place in the National Assembly with a lead in 64 seats. Party president Shehbaz Sharif called a press conference at about midnight in Lahore. “We completely reject the election results owing to rigging all over the country. This [election] has put the country back 30 years,” he said.

Despite the polling process being scheduled to finish by 6pm, less than 30% of the results were announced by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) by midnight on Wednesday, with the official results coming in early in the morning. All major parties barring the PTI claimed their polling agents were not given the official forms with the election results as required by the polling process and they said they had reservations about the results.

“My candidates complained polling agents have been thrown out of polling stations across the country. Inexcusable & outrageous,” tweeted Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the chairperson of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) which was third in the National Assembly with a lead in 43 seats.

Fazl-ur-Rehman, the chief of the Islamist coalition Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, alleged the elections were rigged and called for an all-party conference to discuss the alleged irregularities.

The build-up to the elections was marred by allegations that the all-powerful army was trying to manipulate the process and install a PTI-led government. Among those making the accusations was PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif, who was ousted as prime minister after a Supreme Court verdict in the Panama Papers investigation last year.

Sharif was arrested on July 13 after returning to Pakistan. He had been sentenced to 10 years in prison by an accountability court over a corruption scandal centering around the ownership of four flats in London’s high-end Mayfair district.

When asked if the treatment of the party’s polling agents and the election results backed up Nawaz’s claims about army interference, his brother Shehbaz stopped short of blaming the military. “I would hold the democratic institutions responsible for [rigging] the polling,” the PML-N president said.

However, PML-N leaders pulled no punches. Mussadiq Malik, the former spokesperson for Nawaz Sharif, said the “security apparatus has taken over the polling stations,” while senior PML-N leader Mushahid Hussain said “this is a selection, not an election.”

The PML-N, however, managed to retain its majority in the Punjab Assembly. “This isn’t about winning seats or forming the [provincial] government, it is about the future of this country,” Shehbaz Sharif said.
With the PTI close behind the PML-N in the Punjab Assembly, independent candidates could eventually decide which of the two parties form the government in Pakistan’s most populous province.

The PPP managed to maintain its stronghold in the Sindh Assembly and should lead the provincial government. Voter turnout was low again in Balochistan, with parties looking for possible alliances to form the government there. The Balochistan Awami Party (BAP), believed to be backed by the army to counter separatist parties in the region, looks set to lead the provincial government. They are likely to extend their support to Khan’s PTI, should it fall short of a majority.

For Khan and his PTI, the results are a vindication of a five-year anti-corruption struggle, with the party taking credit for Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification last year and his imprisonment, along with his daughter Maryam Nawaz and son-in-law Captain (R) Muhammad Safdar.

The PTI has not only emerged as the single largest political party in the National Assembly after Wednesday’s polls, but has added the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province to its spoils with an overwhelming majority in the provincial assembly.

With Khan expected to be confirmed as prime minister, he inherits a country facing an economic crisis with a currency in free fall, shrinking foreign reserves and a gaping trade deficit. He will also face multi-pronged diplomatic challenges, with Pakistan being singled out in the region for its questionable security policy, highlighted by the threat of sanctions from the terror watchdog Financial Action Task Force (FATF) last month.

An immediate challenge for Khan might be addressing allegations that he is a military stooge, with many claiming he is the army’s laadla, or blue-eyed boy, on his way to the Prime Minister’s Office.

Published by Saikat Datta

The author is the South Asia Editor for Asia Times.

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