Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), the political party of jailed former prime minister Imran Khan, held massive protests over the weekend to denounce “rigging in the general election” held last week.
Voting in the nationwide elections concluded on Thursday, after which both Khan and his chief rival Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League (PMLN) declared victory. A court order effectively removed Khan’s PTI party from ballots, but PTI supported a number of candidates running as “independents.”
Allegations of vote-rigging began swirling even before the polls closed. As the votes were counted on Friday, it became clear that PTI had pulled off an upset victory despite the opposition of the powerful military establishment, which usually plays kingmaker even when it does not simply dispense with elections and seize control in a coup.
The Pakistani military establishment openly despised Khan and PTI, who have accused the military of conspiring with foreign powers to boot Khan from office with an April 2022 no-confidence vote.
Khan was hounded by hundreds of charges of corruption and malfeasance after leaving office, and eventually convicted and jailed for a total of 34 years on four of them, but he and his supporters insist those charges were political hit jobs designed to keep him from winning re-election as prime minister.
Khan’s convictions disqualify him from running for office and he is not even allowed to give political speeches from prison – his two addresses to PTI supporters since he was jailed were both AI-generated, with his approval.
The military was also furious at PTI supporters for damaging military property when they rioted after Khan was arrested in May 2023. The possibility of PTI taking to the streets again to protest a stolen election was taken very seriously.
When the votes were counted, PTI came away with 97 seats in the National Assembly, versus 73 for PMLN. Votes were still being counted and recounted for seven seats on Monday morning, but they would not be enough to change the outcome by much.
PTI claims the military rigged dozens of races it should have won, denying it the simple parliamentary majority it would have needed to install a prime minister of its choosing. On Saturday, PTI told its supporters to begin peacefully demonstrating.
The next day, PTI demonstrators blocked the Peshawar-Islamabad Motorway for most of the day. Several other smaller parties joined the demonstrations, raising their own complaints about vote-rigging and blocking another highway.
“I appeal to you to stay peaceful and not get provoked because there’s a conspiracy to put you against our law enforcement agencies and create a law and order situation,” PTI leader Kurram Sher told supporters on Sunday.
“I assure you that your mandate isn’t going anywhere,” said Sher. “You will regain that mandate. We will go to the courts and fight a legal battle. We have made our preparations, and we are confident that we will win back each and every Karachi constituency.”
The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) suspended ballot counting in two districts on Sunday, responding to PTI complaints about dubious vote totals. ECP also issued recount orders for dozens of polling stations.
PTI claimed that 18 seats it should have won were “falsely changed” by election officials to steal victories from the party.
“PTI candidates were clearly winning with a huge margin in several constituencies, including Islamabad at night, but ironically, their clear victory was converted into defeat in the morning because political engineering was going on behind the scenes,” charged PTI Central Information Secretary Raoof Hasan.
“These seats have been won by PTI. The mandate given by the people of Karachi to PTI is being stolen by these corrupt, spineless bureaucrats,” fumed PTI Secretary-General Omar Ayub.
Ayub threatened dire consequences for the election officials he accused of tampering the votes, unless they came forward quickly to confess and deliver the correct vote totals.
“You have betrayed public trust. We will name you in Parliament and summon you before the parliamentary committees. We will pursue cases against you until you are dismissed from service. The choice is yours. Rectify your blunder or then face legal consequences and the penalty imposed on you by the courts,” he said.
As of Monday, no one seemed entirely certain of what would happen next. Even though it has the largest number of National Assembly seats, PTI does not have enough to form a government, and probably cannot form an alliance large enough to claim the prime minister’s chair.
PMLN, on the other hand, is negotiating with the third-place finisher, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) to form a ruling coalition. PTI supporters would likely be enraged if PMLN and PPP got together and installed Nawaz Sharif as prime minister, especially if they believe some of the seats were stolen by corrupt vote counters.
One of PTI’s winning candidates, Waseem Qadir, switched parties after winning his race and joined PMLN. Qadir was the general secretary of PTI in the province of Lahore.
“I have returned to my home. For the development of my constituency and my people, I have joined the PMLN again,” Qadir said when announcing his party switch.