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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 14 November 2018

Imran Khan ahead in Pakistan election polls amid rigging complaints

Ex-cricketer declares victory as jailed ex-prime minister’s party decries ‘shameless rigging’

Imran Khan declares victory in Pakistan's general election, despite allegations of vote rigging.  PTI / Reuters
Imran Khan declares victory in Pakistan's general election, despite allegations of vote rigging.  PTI / Reuters

Cricketer turned politician, Imran Khan declared victory in his country's elections, saying "it's not about me, it's about our country."

"We were successful and we were given a mandate," Mr Khan said during a live broadcast, adding there was "no political victimisation" in the contest.

Addressing the nation seated between Pakistan's flag, and a flag of his party, the PTI, Mr Khan said democracy was strengthened after the vote and Pakistan will be run in a new way.

Mr Khan said the leaders of India and Pakistan should talk to resolve the Kashmir dispute, providing an opportunity to end the decades-long dispute.

Pakistan was locked in a close and tense election race on Wednesday, pitting cricket hero Imran Khan against the party of jailed ex-prime minister Nawaz Sharif in a process marred by a suicide bomb that killed 31 people near a polling station.

Mr Khan’s camp was increasingly confident as early projections showed him in the lead, while Mr Sharif’s party and several others complained of rigging in the vote count.

Neither candidate’s party appeared likely to win a clear majority in the National Assembly, with results likely to be known by around 2am local time on Thursday.

Early projections from four local TV channels all put Mr Khan’s party ahead, estimating it would win between 94 and 102 of 272 elected seats available, while Mr Sharif’s outgoing ruling party was estimated at between 40 and 58. However, those projections were based on only about 10-15 per cent of votes counted.

A spokeswoman for Mr Sharif’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), said there were already “serious reservations” about the vote count after reports that soldiers stationed in polling stations had thrown out political parties’ monitors during the tabulations.

About 371,000 soldiers have been stationed at polling stations across the country, nearly five times the number deployed at the last election in 2013.

Mr Khan’s party spokesman, Fawad Chaudhry, showed confidence as the early projections were broadcast, saying in a tweet: “Congratulations to the nation on a new Pakistan! Prime Minister Imran Khan.”

The election will be only the second civilian transfer of power in Pakistan’s 71-year history.

But campaigning has been plagued for months by allegations the powerful armed forces have been trying to tilt the race in Mr Khan’s favour after falling out with the outgoing ruling party of Mr Sharif, who was jailed on corruption charges this month.

Wednesday’s voting was marred by a suicide bombing that killed 31 people near a polling station in Quetta, capital of the south-western province of Balochistan. ISIS claimed responsibility.

During the count, outgoing PML-N Defence Minister Khurram Dastgir Khan tweeted that official result forms were not given at hundreds of polling stations, decrying what he called “blatant, callous, shameless rigging”.

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The third major party, the Pakistan Peoples Party, also complained that its polling agents were asked to leave during the vote count in a number of voting centres.

“This is the warning bell of a serious threat,” said PPP senator Sherry Rehman. “This whole election could be null and void, and we don’t want this.”

Several smaller parties made similar complaints in public statements.

Whichever party wins, it will face a mounting and urgent in-tray, from a brewing economic crisis to worsening relations with on-off ally the United States, and deepening cross-country water shortages.

An anti-corruption crusader, Mr Khan has promised an “Islamic welfare state” and cast his populist campaign as a battle to topple a predatory political elite hindering development in the impoverished mostly Muslim nation of 208 million people, where the illiteracy rate is more than 40 per cent.

“This is the most important election in Pakistan’s history,” Mr Khan, 65, said after casting his vote in the capital, Islamabad.

“I ask everyone today – be a citizen, cherish this country, worry about this country, use your vote.”

Mr Khan has staunchly denied allegations by PML-N that he is getting help from the military, which has ruled Pakistan for about half of its history and still sets key security and foreign policy in the nuclear-armed nation. The army has also dismissed allegations of meddling in the election.

His Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party has inched ahead of PML-N in recent national polls, but even if it gets the most votes, it will likely struggle to win a majority, raising the prospect of weeks of haggling to form a messy coalition government.

Such a delay could further imperil Pakistan’s economy, with a looming currency crisis expected to force the new government to turn to the IMF for Pakistan’s second bailout since 2013. The PTI has not ruled out seeking succour from China, Islamabad’s closest ally.

The PML-N has sought to turn the vote into a referendum on democracy and has said it was campaigning to protect the “sanctity of the vote”, a reference to a history of political interference by the military.

The PPP, which has been overtaken by Khan’s PTI as the main challenger to PML-N, has also alleged intimidation by spy agencies.

PML-N spokeswoman Maryam Aurangzeb also said there had been complaints about the vote counting.

“We have serious reservations. Our political agents have been pushed out and results are being withheld,” she told a press conference.

PML-N’s campaign had been reinvigorated by the return to Pakistan of Sharif, 68, who was earlier this month convicted and sentenced in absentia to 10 years in prison over the purchase of upscale London apartments using offshore companies in the mid-1990s.

Mr Sharif has denied any wrongdoing, and accused elements of the judiciary and military of conspiring to bring down his government.