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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 14 November 2018

Imran Khan neck-and-neck with rivals in Pakistan by-elections 

Voters decide on 11 national assembly seats, including four vacated by PM

Election officials count ballots after polls closed during the general election in Islamabad, Pakistan. Reuters 
Election officials count ballots after polls closed during the general election in Islamabad, Pakistan. Reuters 

Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan's first test at the ballot box since taking power saw his party neck-and-neck with opposition rivals to scoop up by-election seats across the country.

Voters turned out for close-fought contests in the national and provincial assemblies, less than three months after Mr Khan swept to power.

Opposition parties had declared the vote would deliver a damning verdict on his early weeks in office which have seen Mr Khan's Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government struggle to address the country's economic crisis.

But with more than 90 per cent of official results tallied, opposition parties had failed to deliver a drubbing, or alter the balance of power.

Both the PTI and the main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) picked up four seats in the national assembly.

Under Pakistan's election system party leaders can contest more than one seat at a general election. If they win more than one, they must give up the extra seats, which are then decided at by-election.

Sunday's polling saw voters decide on a total of 11 national assembly seats, including four seats vacated by Mr Khan, with the PTI failing to hold onto two of those.

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In the country's powerful provincial assemblies, the PTI picked up 11 seats and the PML-N picked up seven.

Winners included the former prime minister and PML-N heavyweight Shahid Khaqan Abbasi who lost in July.

Before his result was declared he told reporters he feared a rerun of alleged rigging in the July poll where his party accused the military establishment of doctoring results.

He said: “I ask the chief election commissioner this - who is in charge at a polling station? I visited around 40 polling stations today where presiding officers were not in charge. Do you understand what I am saying? Answer me this," Dawn newspaper reported.

"Presiding officers had no authority whatsoever. This is what we call rigging. This is what we call the negation of public opinion. This is what we call disrespecting the people's mandate. These are the things that lead to a country's ruin," he declared.

The ousted prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, was also turned away at the ballot box for not bringing his government identification card.

Sunday's voting passed off without any of the bombing that marred the July 25 poll.

In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Samar Haroon Bilour, the widow of a candidate killed during the summer campaign was elected in his place.

Mr Khan's election-winning populist promises to clean up the country's corrupt governance, while bringing better healthcare, employment, housing and education to millions have run headlong into a grim economic reality.

The country last week began negotiations with the International Monetary Fund for its thirteenth bailout since the late 1980s as it urgently tries to find as much as $12bn to plug budget gaps.

Mr Khan has blamed the economic chaos on mismanagement by the last PML-N government but analysts say the tough medicine dictated by the IMF in return for a bailout is likely to hammer his political support in the coming months.

A devaluing rupee, rising interest rates, taxes and inflation are all expected to hit living standards.

“Certainly in the short term it poses some challenges to some of his policy priorities,” Jeremy Zook, associate director at Fitch Ratings told The National.