Imran Khan supporters block roads as Pakistan parties discuss coalition

Independent candidates backed by jailed former prime minister won the most seats in general election last week

Supporters of former prime minister Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party block the Peshawar to Islambad highway. AFP
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Thousands of supporters of Pakistan's imprisoned former prime minister Imran Khan and members of other political parties blocked key highways and started a day-long strike in the volatile southwestern province of Balochistan on Monday to protest against the alleged rigging of last week's elections.

Independent candidates backed by Khan secured 93 out of 265 seats contested in the National Assembly, or lower house of parliament – more than the political parties who ousted him from power nearly two years ago, according to the final tally published on Sunday.

The Pakistan Muslim League-N, led by three-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif, secured 75 seats, the most among parties, and is in talks with allies to form a coalition government.

One result has been withheld and another vote was postponed because of a candidate’s death.

Thursday's vote was overshadowed by the vote-rigging allegations, a shutdown of mobile phone services, and the exclusion of Khan, who could not run because of criminal convictions he says are politically motivated. His Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, or PTI, was also barred from taking part, prompting members to run as independents.

Candidates backed by the PTI and from other parties refused to accept their defeats in dozens of constituencies. Supporters of Khan's party blocked traffic in the northern city of Peshawar on Sunday, while dozens were briefly detained after protesting in the eastern city of Lahore.

Jan Achakzai, a government spokesman in Balochistan, urged protesters there to “show grace” by accepting defeat and clearing the motorways.

Mr Sharif's party is now in coalition talks with the Pakistan People’s Party, or PPP, led by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, which came in third with 54 seats. The campaign to oust Khan from office in a no-confidence vote in 2022 was led by the PML-N and the PPP.

They have “agreed in principle to save the country from political instability”, according to a statement posted on X, formerly Twitter, on Sunday night by Mr Sharif's brother Shehbaz Sharif, president of the PML-N.

Officials from both the PML-N and the PPP, however, said talks were snagged over which party's leader would get the prime minister's post.

"Both sides are interested to form a coalition, but there is no breakthrough so far. Both parties want the office of prime minister," a top PML-N leader close to the Sharifs told Reuters.

The PML-N has not named its prime ministerial candidate, but officials say the choice will be between Nawaz Sharif, 74, and his younger brother Shehbaz, 72, who held the post for 18 months until August last year.

The PPP has always maintained Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, son of assassinated prime minister Benazir Bhutto and former president Asif Ali Zardari, as its candidate for the prime ministership. At 35, he would become Pakistan's youngest premier since his mother, who began the first of two terms as head of government at the age of 40 in 1993.

A successful coalition between the PML-N and PPP would decrease the leverage of election winners supported by Khan. However, some these candidates could opt to join either party, or form a coalition with a smaller party to block either candidate, analysts say.

At least one Khan-backed candidate has already switched sides to join PML-N, and it is possible others may also change allegiances.

PTI Chairman Gohar Khan told Geo Television the rest of the independent candidates “are in touch with us and will stay with us only.” He also ruled out forging an alliance with PML-N or the PPP.

“It is better to sit in the opposition than to make a government with them,” he told the Dawn News show.

Many more former PTI members who did not win seats are contesting the result in court, which could further hold up the formation of Pakistan's next government.

With reporting from agencies

Updated: February 12, 2024, 3:58 PM