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Imran Khan's party defied the odds in Pakistan election with strong showing

Supporters of former prime minister Imran Khan's party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf protest in Peshawar, Pakistan, for free and fair results of the election, after delays in the vote count. (Fayaz Aziz/Reuters - image credit)
Supporters of former prime minister Imran Khan's party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf protest in Peshawar, Pakistan, for free and fair results of the election, after delays in the vote count. (Fayaz Aziz/Reuters - image credit)

As the cheers from his supporters engulfed him, Nawaz Sharif stepped up to the podium a day after Pakistan went to the polls in an election that many have called neither free nor fair, with a pseudo-victory speech.

"Pakistan Muslim League is the largest [party] in the country right now after this election," he claimed, saying he was ready to lead a coalition government.

It wasn't technically wrong, but it was no victory for Sharif, a three-time former prime minister who had returned from self-imposed exile to seek a fourth term, after what analysts say was a backroom deal brokered with Pakistan's powerful military.

Sharif was widely seen as the army's "selected" candidate, while a crackdown against rival party, former prime minister Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-insaf (PTI), left some of their candidates in jail or in hiding, and all essentially forced to run as independents.

WATCH Uncertainty reigns in Pakistan as election results trickle in: 

But it didn't go as authorities planned.

With results for only a few constituencies pending Saturday, Khan's PTI-backed independent candidates were firmly in the lead — a stunning result in an election many had considered predetermined, and a strong rebuke to the country's army generals.

A few hours after Sharif spoke, Imran Khan, the former prime minister who was jailed and barred from running in the election, also claimed a "landslide victory."

In an AI-generated video message, the imprisoned politician called the results "an unprecedented fightback."

Rizwan Tabassum/AFP via Getty Images
Rizwan Tabassum/AFP via Getty Images

The duelling claims show how Pakistan's election results are both stark and complex.

Although it's still unclear who will form Pakistan's next government, with no party having won a majority, frantic negotiations are underway. The political wrangling is expected to last days, with established parties trying to woo the independents, who, by law, are required to either choose to align themselves with a party within days or they must remain independent.

The PTI-backed independents also intend to try to rule through a coalition, according to one of Khan's senior aides, who called for peaceful protests if the full election results were not released promptly.

'It has shaken the elite' 

Pakistan's army chief congratulated the country for what Asim Munir called the "successful conduct" of the elections, and called for unity. Munir, in a statement, said Pakistan needed "stable hands and a healing touch" to move on from the politics of "anarchy and polarization."

A stock response after an election, according to Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Lahore-based military analyst who wrote a book about the army's role in Pakistani politics.

Banaras Khan/AFP via Getty Images
Banaras Khan/AFP via Getty Images

He said the open question is whether the country's military, used to being the ultimate authority in Pakistan, is willing to accept the message that was sent from the electorate, who came out in large numbers to cast their ballots for Khan.

"This is a negative vote for the policies that the security establishment was pursuing," Rizvi told CBC News. "However, it's not clear whether they will recognize the realities on the ground."

"The message is very clear that PTI is a political reality."

A reality that deeply resonated with young voters and other Pakistanis who don't usually bother to go to the polls, said Tahir Malik, an Islamabad-based political scientist.

"During this election, the people have shown their will and now it has shaken the elite," he said from his home in Islamabad.

Salimah Shivji/CBC
Salimah Shivji/CBC

But the uncertainty over who will rule the country, coupled with the likelihood of a weak coalition government and a military struggling to deal with a perceived defeat, means more instability to come, experts said.

"We will enter into another political crisis post-elections," Malik predicted, with questions of the election's legitimacy lingering.

Protests multiply over delays in results

Allegations of widespread vote-rigging got louder as the country waited with bated breath for final results to be released. Generally in Pakistan, initial results are announced within a few hours of polls closing.

This election, a full 48 hours after voting ended, the results for a handful of constituencies were still missing.

Protests erupted in several cities across Pakistan Saturday over the extended delays and whether the results were being manipulated.

Salimah Shivji/CBC
Salimah Shivji/CBC

In a central Islamabad riding on Friday morning, the day after the election, Aamir Masood Mughal clutched the documents from officials that the candidate said declared him the winner the night before, with a majority of some 42,000 votes.

But by Friday morning, that was overturned and the seat declared for his opponent.

"When I woke up in the morning, my results were totally changed," Mughal said. "This is open [vote]-rigging."

"Our country is going to become a banana republic," he added.

The United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union each expressed concerns over how the election process unfolded, calling for an investigation into alleged irregularities.

Salimah Shivji/CBC
Salimah Shivji/CBC

But Pakistan's foreign office clapped back in a statement that said the comments from "certain countries and organizations" were negative in tone and ignored that Pakistan had held elections "peacefully and successfully."

Nasir Mehmood was successful in casting his vote on Thursday, under a bright sun at his rural polling station in Punjab province, even as he had strong words for authorities' attempts to meddle with the outcome.

"The real power is democracy," the 51-year old said, with pride, moments after he voted, his thumb blue with ink. "Even though it doesn't fully exist in Pakistan."

"The establishment need not interfere," Mehmood said.