Pakistan authorities warn of crackdown on protests as election result disputed

Supporters of jailed former prime minister Imran Khan have called for rallies across the country

Supporters of the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) political party gather to protest as they allege rigging in the general elections, in Peshawar, Pakistan, 11 February 2024.  The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has started releasing the results of the recent general elections after a 12-hour delay.  The election took place amidst security measures, including mobile and internet restrictions, and the outcome remains uncertain as no clear winner has emerged yet.   EPA / BILAWAL ARBAB
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Police in Pakistan said they would crack down on any protests after the party of jailed former prime minister Imran Khan urged supporters to rally against alleged vote-rigging in last week's election.

Protests were reported in Peshawar on Sunday after Mr Khan’s party made shock electoral gains, which analysts said were partly driven by sympathy for Mr Khan, who recently began a 14-year jail sentence. No violence has been reported so far however.

Independent candidates – most of them linked to Mr Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party – took the most seats in the polls, scuppering the chances of the army-backed Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) to win a ruling majority.

However, independents cannot form a government and the country faces weeks of political uncertainty as rival parties try to negotiate coalitions.

In one significant upset, Rana Sanaullah Khan, the former interior minister who once said Mr Khan should be “eliminated,” after accusing the former PM of inciting violence, lost his seat to the PTI’s Nisar Jutt in the Faisalabad district of Punjab province.

PTI leaders claim they would have won even more seats if not for vote-rigging and Mr Khan’s sister Aleema Khan said their votes had been “stolen,” calling the vote a “revolution.”

The disputed result is ominous in the country of 250 million, which saw months of violence at PTI rallies in the run-up to Mr Khan’s arrest on corruption charges, which he insists are false. Pakistan is also grappling with rising debt and inflation, and a multi-pronged insurgency that includes the Pakistani Taliban and Baloch separatists.

A nationwide blackout of mobile networks on election day and the slow counting of votes led to suspicions the military establishment was influencing the process to ensure success for former premier Nawaz Sharif's PML-N.

Yet PML-N stalwart Khawaja Saad Rafique lost the election in Lahore to PTI’s Sardar Latif Khosa. Mr Rafique is a former MP and served as federal minister for railways.

PML-N’s Saira Afzal Tarar, a former federal minister, also lost her seat in Hafizabad

"Throughout Pakistan, elections were manipulated in a subtle way," PTI chairman Gohar Ali Khan told a news conference on Saturday, calling on supporters to "protest peacefully" on Sunday.

Protest ban

Authorities warned they would take strict action, saying so-called Section 144 orders were in place – a colonial-era law banning public gatherings.

"Some individuals are inciting illegal gatherings around the Election Commission and other government offices," a statement from Islamabad's police force said on Sunday.

"Legal action will be taken against unlawful assemblies. It should be noted that soliciting for gatherings is also a crime."

A similar warning was also issued in the city of Rawalpindi, just south of the capital, while dozens of police equipped with riot gear assembled near Liberty Market in Lahore in the east.

Imran Khan's party defied a months-long crackdown, which crippled campaigning and forced candidates to run as independents, to emerge as the winners of Thursday's vote.

"The results have clearly indicated that no single party possesses a simple majority to establish a government," said Zahid Hussain, a political analyst and author.

"The political future of the country from this point onward is highly uncertain."

Still, PTI leaders insist they have been given a "people's mandate" to form the next government.

"The people have decided in favour of Imran Khan," party chairman Gohar Ali Khan told Arab News in an interview.

A coalition between the PML-N and the PPP – who formed the last government after ousting Imran Khan with a no-confidence vote in April 2022 – still seems the most likely outcome.

There are now three major stakeholders for the upcoming government, in addition to some smaller parties. Independent candidates are leading in the National Assembly having won 101 seats, the PML-N has secured 75 seats in the national assembly and the third major party, PPP, has won 54 seats.

Ten minor parties mopped up the remaining 17 seats, with two remaining vacant.

Pakistan's military chief told feuding politicians on Saturday to show "maturity and unity".

"The nation needs stable hands and a healing touch to move on from the politics of anarchy and polarisation which does not suit a progressive country of 250 million people," General Syed Asim Munir said in a statement.

The military looms large over Pakistan's political landscape, with generals having run the country for nearly half its history since partition from India in 1947.

Updated: February 11, 2024, 2:23 PM