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Pakistan Election Surprise: Imran Khan’s Party Puts Up a Fight

Pakistani voters on Friday were anxiously awaiting the final results of a national election that has stunned many in the country by denying Pakistan’s powerful military a widely expected landslide victory for its preferred party.

That party, led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, was lagging in the polls behind a rival party, headed by another former prime minister, Imran Khan, as totals trickled in a day after voting. The prolonged uncertainty and tight race made clear that the military, long the guiding hand in Pakistani politics, had failed in its heavy-handed effort to gut Mr. Khan’s party ahead of the vote.

By 10:30 p.m. on Friday, that party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or P.T.I., was leading in the polls with at least 90 confirmed seats in the National Assembly, the lower house of Parliament. Mr. Sharif’s party had at least 66 confirmed seats, with only 29 left unaccounted for in the vote. Most of those seats were expected to go to candidates affiliated with Mr. Sharif.

The success of P.T.I. may constitute as close to an upset as possible in a country where the military is the ultimate authority. It reflected the deep, loyal base of support that Mr. Khan has cultivated since he was ousted by Parliament in 2022, as well as his unique ability to outmaneuver the military’s playbook for sidelining politicians who have fallen out of its favor.

In Punjab, the country’s most populous province, which accounts for more than half of the seats in Parliament, many candidates in Mr. Sharif’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, or P.M.L.N., were neck and neck with those in the party of Mr. Khan, a popular figure who has been jailed for months. Other key P.M.L.N. leaders in Mr. Sharif’s inner circle lost their races in constituencies that were once strongholds for the party.

While Pakistan’s election commission had initially said that the results would be released early Friday morning, by 6 p.m. officials had announced totals for just over half of the 266 seats up for grabs in the National Assembly.

The Interior Ministry attributed the delay to a “lack of connectivity” related to security precautions. But human rights groups and analysts expressed concerns that it could be a sign of tampering by the military and warned that it would raise questions about the legitimacy of the incoming government.

“This lack of transparency is deeply concerning,” the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan announced on the platform X. “We see no plausible reason to attribute this delay to any extraordinary circumstances that might justify it.”

As results slowly came in, thousands of P.T.I. supporters took to the streets in small cities across the country. They railed against the slow release of the results and made clear they would not accept any possible manipulation of the vote in P.M.L.N.’s favor.

“Any attempt to change the results overnight will be thwarted and not accepted at any cost by the people of Pakistan or the local and international observers and media,” Gohar Ali Khan, the chairman of P.T.I., said on the platform X.

Despite being behind in the polls Friday night, Mr. Sharif appeared on the balcony of his office in Lahore around 7:30 p.m. to give a victory speech. Fireworks lit up the sky as he congratulated a crowd of supporters on their victory and invited all political parties to join him in forming a coalition government.

“We are inviting everyone today to rebuild this injured Pakistan and sit with us,” he said. “Our agenda is solely a prosperous Pakistan.”

Voting on Thursday was marred by a suspension of mobile phone service across the country. The Interior Ministry attributed the outages to security concerns, while analysts said they were most likely an attempt to hinder mobilization of P.T.I. supporters.

The election came after a monthslong military-led campaign to neutralize Mr. Khan and his party. P.T.I. leaders and supporters were arrested in droves. The party was barred from using its iconic cricket bat symbol to identify its candidates on the ballot, a crucial visual cue for voters in a country with high illiteracy rates.

Mr. Khan, a former cricket star turned populist politician, was arrested in August and issued three prison terms for a variety of offenses just days before the vote. He has been barred from holding public office for a decade.

But those efforts to demoralize his supporters — what many experts described as “pre-election rigging” — appeared to have the opposite effect. Many supporters feel a deep allegiance to the populist leader who they believe was wrongfully ousted by the military and sympathized with Mr. Khan’s plight.

Other voters said they were fed up with the military’s meddling in politics and cast their ballots for P.T.I. candidates to spite the generals. Still more said they were frustrated with the P.M.L.N. led coalition government that came to power after Mr. Khan’s ouster and failed to meaningfully address the country’s soaring inflation.

“This is much more a public verdict against military’s interference in politics, against party suppression,” said Azeema Cheema, founding director of Verso Consulting, an Islamabad-based research firm. “The voter was coming out in either anger, desperation or disillusion.”

Salman Masood contributed reporting.

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