Pakistan elections: Against the odds, Khan’s PTI proves support is solid

Imran Khan, pictured with the flag of Pakistan behind him

By Caroline Davies in Lahore

Pakistan correspondent

Today’s results are both clear and complicated.

Independent candidates – many of whom would have run under the banner of the PTI party but were prevented from doing so – have taken the largest number of seats.

However the PML-N, led by pre-election frontrunner Nawaz Sharif, can currently claim to be the largest party.

What is clear is that Imran Khan’s PTI party has proved that its popularity is not a social media bubble, but has a real and committed support base.

It came into this election with its founder disqualified and in prison (he is already serving a three-year sentence for corruption, and has been handed further jail terms in recent weeks), and its cricket bat symbol removed from the ballot – an electoral blow in a country with low literacy rates.

Khan, who was ousted as prime minister by his opponents in 2022, has said the numerous cases against him are politically motivated.

Forced to run as independents, PTI’s candidates were unable to hold large rallies, with some candidates in jail, and others in hiding.

The party says that its supporters have been intimidated and picked up by the police while it tries to run its campaign – allegations the authorities have always denied.

Despite all of that, PTI-linked candidates appear to have won more seats than any other group.

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The PML-N – the party that most observers believed to have the backing of the powerful military – is running in second place.

Meanwhile, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), led by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari – the son of Pakistan’s former president Asif Ali Zardari and murdered ex-PM Benazir Bhutto – is in third.

The real complication is what happens next.

The election results may change in the coming days as candidates from different parties challenge the results. But that is not the only thing to watch out for.

Pakistan requires all independents to join a political party within 3 days from the moment they are officially declared or they must stay independent.

PTI will need to come up with a solution soon.

Nawaz Sharif (R), former prime minister and leader of the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N), stands next to his daughter Maryam Nawaz (L) as he speaks to supporters in Lahore, Pakistan, 09 February 2024
Image caption,Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N are the largest party, despite being outnumbered by independents

Other parties are already openly eyeing up the candidates, hoping they can persuade them to join their ranks, picking them off one by one.

In the meantime, the PML-N will be making alliances to try to reach a majority. PTI also need to work out who will lead them; Imran Khan doesn’t look set to be released.

There’s also a bigger question in this result. Political analysts felt confident that three-time prime minister and leader of PML-N Nawaz Sharif had the military’s backing despite his protestations. Yet Khan-backed candidates still won. What does this suggest about Pakistan’s relationship with its powerful military?

There is often talk of wheels within wheels in Pakistan; intricate power dynamics and moves, alliances and grudges. What many had thought would be a relatively predictable election has proved anything but.

A man holding a drum draped with the PTI flag and wearing a yellow outfit looks directly at the camera, surrounded by supporters of convicted former Prime Minister Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party. They were celebrating unofficial preliminary partial results at the end of election day, in Peshawar, Pakistan, 08 February 2024.
Image caption,Supporters of Imran Khan’s PTI party took to the street to celebrate the provisional results which favour independent candidates aligned with the party

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