Pakistan’s ex-Premier Sharif says he will seek a coalition government after trailing rival

Independent candidates backed by imprisoned former Prime Minister Imran Khan were leading in Pakistan’s national election results

Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) political party
Supporters of the convicted former prime minister Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) political party dance, in Peshawar, Pakistan, February 09, 2024.ARSHAD ARBAB (EFE)

Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is changing tack and said on Friday that he will seek to form a coalition government after his party trailed the independent candidates of his rival Imran Khan in preliminary results following the country’s parliamentary election.

Sharif told reporters he was sending his younger brother, former Premier Shehbaz Sharif, to meet the leaders of other parties to join the coalition.

Nawaz Sharif had rejected the idea of a coalition just a day earlier, saying he wanted a single party running Pakistan. “We don’t have enough of a majority to form a government without the support of others and we invite allies to join the coalition so we can make joint efforts to pull Pakistan out of its problems,” he said.

Independent candidates backed by imprisoned former Prime Minister Imran Khan were leading in Pakistan’s national election results on Friday, a surprise given claims by his supporters and a national rights body that the balloting was manipulated to favor his rival.

Khan, a former cricket star turned Islamist politician with a significant grassroots following, was disqualified from running in Thursday’s election because of criminal convictions against him. He contends his sentences and the more than 150 legal cases still pending against him were politically motivated.

His party’s candidates had to run as independents in the election after they were barred from using the party symbol — a cricket bat — to help illiterate voters find them on ballots.

Of the 200 National Assembly results announced by the country’s election oversight body as of Friday evening, candidates backed by Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, or PTI, had won 85 seats. The Pakistan Muslim League of his rival, three-time former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, had 59 seats.

With the results for 66 more seats still pending and a third major party in the mix, it was too soon for any party to declare victory.

However, that did not stop stop Sharif’s relatives and loyalists from appearing on a balcony at the party headquarters in the eastern city of Lahore, waving to the crowds below. People threw rose petals on Sharif’s car as he arrived to give a speech to supporters.

PTI chairman Gohar Khan told Pakistani news channel Geo that the party’s own count shows it securing a total of 150 seats, enough to form a government, though 169 seats are required for a majority in the 336-seat National Assembly, or the lower house of parliament.

If confirmed by the final vote count, that outcome would defy almost all pre-election predictions. Observers had expected the Pakistan Muslim League to prevail and put Sharif on track to another term as prime minister due to the disadvantages faced by his party.

Along with Khan being in prison and accruing more criminal convictions, election officials and police blocked his party from holding rallies and opening campaign offices, and its online events were blocked. The PTI said the moves were intended to prevent them from competing in the election and gaining momentum with voters.

The partial results released Friday showed the Pakistan People’s Party of Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, the son of the assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, in third place with 44 seats. Final results were expected by Friday night. Bhutto-Zardari did not respond to requests for comment about his party’s performance.

After many Pakistani news channels reported early Friday that PTI-backed candidates were giving the parties led by Sharif and Bhutto-Zardari a run for their money, Sen. Mushahid Hussain, a Pakistan Muslim League member, called the media tallies “probably the biggest election upset in Pakistan’s political history” in 50 years.

If no party wins an outright majority, the one with the most seats can try to form a coalition government. Pakistan’s deeply divided political climate, however, is unlikely to produce a coalition pulling together for the betterment of the country, which is grappling with high inflation, year-round energy outages, and militant attacks. Sporadic violence and a cellphone service shutdown overshadowed Thursday’s voting.

The chief election commissioner previously said the results would be communicated to the oversight body by early Friday and released to the public after that, but this started happening only at midday.

The Interior Ministry attributed the delay to a “lack of connectivity” resulting from security precautions.

The Election Commission has also started announcing election results for the country’s four provincial assemblies, a vote also held Thursday. The commission posted those results on its website more than 15 hours after polls closed.

Sharif struck a confident and defiant note on polling day, brushing off suggestions his party might not win an outright majority in parliament.

Sharif and Khan’s circumstances on election day represented a reversal of fortunes for the two men. Sharif returned to Pakistan in October after four years of self-imposed exile abroad to avoid serving prison sentences. Within weeks of his return, his convictions were overturned, leaving him free to seek a fourth term in office.

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