In the general elections conducted on Thursday, Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League won 43 seats. Bhutto’s PPP got 28 seats, and surprisingly, candidates backed by Imran Khan were at 57. Pakistan’s national assembly has 266 seats, so to form a government, one needs 134, and Imran Khan is in pole position.
But Nawaz Sharif doesn’t seem to care. He visited his party headquarters a short while back. Sharif says he’s won the elections. Despite his party trailing, Sharif says he has won the election—that’s Pakistani politics for you!
Nawaz Sharif’s plan is to build a coalition. He says he will reach out to other parties. But why is he celebrating prematurely? What exactly happened in the last 24 hours?
Voting in Pakistan ended at 5 pm local time on Thursday. Then the drama began. Pakistan’s election commission began counting the votes. Expectations were of an easy victory by Nawaz Sharif. After all, the Army had played every dirty trick. Imran Khan was in jail. His party had lost its election symbol. Its top leaders were intimidated. So, what could possibly go wrong?
Late into the night, results started trickling in. It showed Imran Khan’s candidates in the lead. Most of them had contested as independents, and yet they were leading. Some trends showed Imran Khan’s party, the PTI, crossing the majority, and that too comfortably!
The other side was in disarray. Nawaz Sharif himself was trailing from his seat. Most of his party leaders were nowhere to be seen. In contrast, Imran Khan’s PTI hit the streets. Their supporters rallied outside polling stations. They refused to leave until the counting was done.
“From Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf, the electoral symbol bat was withdrawn, our leader Imran Khan was jailed, and PTI supporters were given a message that you cannot win, but still, PTI supporters did not lose heart; the result of today’s polling will be all in our favour,” said Ishaq Khan, a PTI supporter.
“If our leader is in jail, we are his lions outside, and we will fight until our lion is out of jail, and we want Imran Khan to be out of jail as soon as possible, and inshallah we will still win,” said Zohaib Khan, another PTI supporter.
So everyone began asking the same question: Had Pakistanis beaten the army? It was too early to say. Once the early trends emerged, a few suspicious things happened. First, the Election Commission’s website went down. People couldn’t access it anymore. Then, the counting slowed down. Suddenly, results were simply not being published.
Then, at 3 a.m. local time, the election commission called a press conference. An election official addressed the presser. He made two important announcements: One reason for the delay was the internet. Pakistan had snapped mobile services on voting day. Apparently, that was slowing things down. Two, the early trends were unverified, meaning the PTI’s lead may not have been real. Now, obviously, this sounded fishy, because on Thursday, the Election Commission said something different. They said the internet shutdown would not affect counting. So what changed in a few hours? Only they can tell us.
But afterwards, we saw some worrying pictures of soldiers deployed outside counting centres and soldiers pushing away PTI workers. Even some footage of ballot stuffing. Multiple journalists and activists have posted these videos. But we cannot vouch for their authenticity.
Counting speed has improved compared to Thursday. But still, the pace is slow, and Pakistan’s homegrown result transmission system isn’t working. So the results are being relayed physically, which means the rigging is easier.
The PTI has pointed out several examples.
Take a look at this document that shows results from a constituency in Lahore. The winner is Nawaz Sharif, but look at the numbers. Around 293 thousand votes were cast, and 294 thousand were counted. Where did these extra thousand votes come from? It looks like a classic case of rigging—a poorly executed one. But even rigging can only help so much because Sharif actually lost his other seat. He was contesting from two constituencies. One was in Lahore, and the other was in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Thanks to magic numbers, he won in Lahore, but in the other seat, he lost.
Well, Pakistani voters have given the answer. They do not love Nawaz Sharif like they used to. He now represents the politics of the past. A politics that young Pakistan does not identify with. Many voters have openly called out the rigging.
It is not game over yet. The results still show Imran Khan in the lead. But the Sharifs are not giving up. Maryam Nawaz says her party, the Muslim League, will be the single largest party. She says Nawaz Sharif will give a victory speech once the results are in. So did the tide change overnight? The Sharifs seem to think so. But don’t expect this drama to end with the results. Early trends showed the PTI forming a government, but 24 hours later, they could lose. How would you react to that? If you’re an Imran Khan supporter, you will be outraged, and by the looks of it, Pakistan has many of those. So this election drama isn’t ending anytime soon. In fact, it has unlocked a new crisis.