Nollowing the parliamentary elections in Pakistan, the party of imprisoned former Prime Minister Imran Khan has called on its supporters to protest on Sunday over alleged election fraud. Khan's candidates won the most parliamentary seats in Thursday's election. However, his party claims that in reality it has won an absolute majority. The shutdown of the nationwide mobile phone network on election day and the delayed publication of the results have undermined confidence in the official results. Khan's party, PTI, said it wanted to form a government. “Imran Khan will decide who will be the next prime minister,” party leader Gohar Khan said on Saturday. It is unclear how the PTI plans to find the necessary coalition partners.

Friederike Böge

Political correspondent for Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan based in Ankara.

The unexpected electoral success of the PTI despite the imprisonment of its party founder and its obstruction in the election campaign has exposed popular discontent over the military's interference in the electoral process and the country's politics. A member of Pakistan's Senate called it the “most consequential election” since the first direct elections in 1970.

The generals had paved the way for former three-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif to win the election. However, his Muslim League (PML-N) fell far short of expectations. Nevertheless, Sharif declared his party the “strongest party” on Friday evening because the candidates from the opposing PTI had to run as independents. Nawaz Sharif instructed his brother Shehbaz Sharif to conduct exploratory talks. That same evening he met with the chairmen of the People's Party, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and Asif Zardari. Former President Zardari is considered a shrewd negotiator.

“Your reputation is now at zero.”

The country's two major dynasties, the Sharifs and the Bhuttos, last formed a government together with other parties after the fall of Imran Khan in 2022. However, due to the disastrous economic situation, the coalition was highly unpopular. Sharif's Muslim League tried Saturday to give the impression that an agreement had already been reached.

The exploratory talks appeared to have the army's blessing. Army chief Asim Munir said the country must leave “anarchy and polarization” behind, now needs “healing” and must be placed in “stable hands”. In contrast, PTI chairman Gohar Khan demanded that “all institutions” must respect the will of the voters – meaning the army. Khan's electoral success and the widespread perception of electoral fraud have damaged the military's reputation in the eyes of the population. This can also be felt on the streets of Islamabad. A real estate dealer named Naweed Khan explains: “Before, on a scale of one to ten, their reputation was five, now it is zero.”

Protests over alleged election fraud

Younger voters in particular are tired of their country being ruled by generals and feudal dynasties for 76 years. The military had apparently hoped to finally banish Khan's influence with the parliamentary elections. The opposite was the case. The all too blatant influence mobilized Khan's supporters, who cleverly portrayed himself as the victim of a conspiracy. At least he will remain a strong opposition force.

According to preliminary official information, the PTI won 93 of 256 seats counted, Sharif's Muslim League won 73 and Bhutto's People's Party 54 seats. There were still no results for the remaining nine constituencies more than two days after the polls closed. Depending on their strength, the parties are then allocated 70 quota seats for women and minorities. The PTI has no claim to this because its candidates had to run as non-party candidates. This further limits Khan's power options.

There were isolated protests over alleged election fraud on Saturday. Two members of a local Pashtun party were killed in North Waziristan and its leader was seriously injured.

The United States and the European Union called for an investigation into the allegations of manipulation. If you take past elections as a benchmark, this is probably not to be expected. The EU's comparatively mild statement said: “We regret the lack of a level playing field as some political actors were unable to run.”

The coming days will show whether Khan will be able to keep the candidates he has put forward together as a group. The newly elected independent parliamentarians have three days to join other factions that could lure them with posts and other benefits. Niels Hegewisch, country director of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Pakistan, predicts: “There will be many moral and immoral offers.”