Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif anticipated an easy victory for his Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML-N) in the country's general elections, positioning himself for a fourth term in the top position.
However, the emergence of independent candidates supported by incarcerated rival and former PM Imran Khan in the vote count on Friday, 9 February, presented an unexpected challenge to Sharif.
Election results began to emerge nearly 12 hours following the closure of polls for both national and provincial assemblies on Thursday, revealing a slight advantage for candidates affiliated with the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), closely followed by those from the PML-N and Pakistan People's Party (PPP).
Independent candidates, largely supported by the PTI, secured 99 seats out of a total of 266 in the National Assembly so far, while the PMLN has clinched 71 seats and the PPP has secured 53. Results for more than a dozen seats are still pending.
Meanwhile, Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister and head of PML-N, expressed his intention to form a coalition government after his party trailed behind independent candidates supported by Khan.
In case you missed it, a ban on the PTI's bat symbol effectively prevented the party from participating as a whole and forced its candidates to run as Independents.
The Coalition Meeting
The unexpected turn of events interrupted Sharif's plans, which are said to be backed by Pakistan's ever-so-powerful Army, prompted him to announce efforts to establish a coalition with the PPP.
The announcement came just a day after he staunchly rejected the idea, preferring a single-party rule for a full five-year term (an event that has never occurred in Pakistan's 77-year-long history).
In the wake of numerous victories by independent candidates aligned with PTI in the 2024 general elections, the former ruling party has convened a meeting to discuss potential alliances with other political factions.
After meeting with Bilawal Bhutto and Asif Ali Zardari, Shehbaz Sharif reportedly extended an invitation to collaborate for the betterment of Pakistan, and the two parties decided to form a coalition government for the Central and Punjab provinces, according to Geo News report.
The discussion between PML-N Chairman Shehbaz Sharif and the top leadership of PPP took place at the residence of caretaker Punjab Chief Minister Mohsin Naqvi. Shehbaz urged the PPP leaders to engage in dialogue with PML-N for the 'sake of political and economic stability' in the country, the broadcaster reported.
The report added that the parties reached an agreement to establish a coalition government and are also said to have reached an understanding to establish a government both at the federal level and in the Punjab province.
Imran Khan's AI Generated Message
On Friday, PTI affirmed its capability to form a government at the center and rejected the prospect of forming an alliance with PPP and PML-N.
Khan, a former cricket superstar-turned-Islamist politician with significant grassroots support, was disqualified from participating due to multiple criminal convictions and remains incarcerated following the Toshakhana corruption conviction (among many others since) last year.
Khan is serving a three-year jail term on a corruption conviction and was further sentenced to prison for 10 years in the state secrets case and 14 years in the Toshakhana case prior to the polls.
In an AI-generated victory speech, Khan claimed victory and congratulated Pakistani citizens saying, "You have set the foundation for your haqeeqi azaadi (Translation, if possible) by voting yesterday. I congratulate you all for winning the 2024 elections.”
In his statement, Khan criticised the PML-N leader as a "petty man" and asserted that no Pakistani would accept his claim of victory.
With Khan's party candidates unable to use their party symbol, they were forced to contest as Independents. Despite Khan's imprisonment and the crackdown on PTI members, their electoral lead surprised many observers.
Moreover, reports say that while the PML-N and PPP are holding talks, a series of victories by Independents affiliated with the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) has prompted the former ruling party to convene a meeting to explore potential coalitions with other political entities.
Key figures, including Asad Qaiser, Ali Muhammad Khan, PTI Chairman Barrister Gohar Khan, and others, have been summoned to discuss the formation of new central and provincial governments, as announced by the PTI.
Khan's senior aide was quoted by Reuters as saying on Saturday that their party, PTI, will try to form a national government with the most seats won in the polls.
The unexpected victory of the PTI has left Nawaz Sharif with few options despite being considered a frontrunner for the prime ministerial position. The PML-N lacks the necessary seats to form a government independently and must now explore coalition possibilities. While the PPP seems a logical choice due to past alliances, recent criticisms from Bilawal Bhutto Zardari suggest a strained relationship.
With a minimum of 169 seats required for a majority in the 336-seat parliament, alliances become crucial. The PTI dismisses any collaboration with PML-N, as legal challenges regarding independent candidacy complicate their ability to form a government without merging into a party.
Despite losing reserved seats for women and minorities, Independents can still form coalitions. According to experts, a potential alliance between PPP and PTI-backed Independents has been hinted at, although a coalition involving PML-N, PPP, and smaller parties is also plausible. Ultimately, the formation of the government depends on negotiations and compromises among the various political factions.
US, UK, EU Express Apprehension Towards Election Procsess
The United States, Britain, and the European Union each expressed apprehensions regarding the electoral process and called for an investigation into "irregularities".
The US and the EU raised concerns about alleged interference, including the arrest of activists, and emphasized the need for a thorough investigation into claims of irregularities, interference, and fraud.
The EU's statement highlighted a perceived lack of a fair playing field, citing restrictions on certain political actors' ability to participate in the elections, as well as limitations on freedom of assembly, expression, and internet access.
The US State Department criticised what it called "undue restrictions" on freedom of expression and assembly, along with instances of violence and attacks on media personnel. The US emphasized the importance of investigating allegations of interference or fraud fully.
Several US lawmakers, including Democratic Representatives Ro Khanna and Ilhan Omar, echoed these concerns, with Khanna alleging military interference and manipulation of results. Both Khanna and Omar urged the State Department to withhold recognition of any winner until misconduct allegations are thoroughly investigated.
Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington, characterized the statements from the EU and the US State Department as relatively restrained given the reported scale of electoral manipulation.
The EU, US, and Britain stated their intention to collaborate with the incoming government and refrained from extending congratulations to any candidate or party. British Foreign Minister David Cameron highlighted "serious concerns" regarding the fairness and inclusivity of the elections in his statement.