If Sharif’s party falls short of a majority in Parliament, which has 265 seats up for grabs, it could be forced into difficult coalition talks, likely prompting more political instability in the nuclear-armed country of 240 million people.
Khan’s party itself remains highly unlikely to return to power, despite the races won so far by people associated with it. All of Khan’s 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.
Khan, who was arrested last 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 Parliament, while Sharif’s is likely to have a clearer path to power.
But the preliminary 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.
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.
There were some initial reports of protests by PTI supporters over electoral fraud allegations in parts of the country Friday. The PTI’s leadership had earlier called on its supporters to assemble outside polling stations to demand a fair counting process.
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 attempted 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.