Pakistan’s former prime minister Nawaz Sharif changed tack on Friday and said he will seek to form a coalition government after his party trailed independent candidates backed by his imprisoned rival, Imran Khan, in parliamentary election results.
Sharif told supporters he was sending his younger brother and former premier, Shahbaz Sharif, to meet the leaders of other parties and invite them to join a coalition.
Nawaz Sharif had gruffly rejected the idea of a coalition just a day earlier, when he told reporters after casting his vote that he wanted a single party running Pakistan for a full five-year term. But on Friday evening he acknowledged, “we don’t have enough of a majority to form a government without the support of others and we invite allies to join the coalition so we can make joint efforts to pull Pakistan out of its problems.”
“I don’t want to fight with those who are in the mood for fighting,” he told supporters in Lahore. “We will have to sit together to settle all matters.”
Sharif spoke after results earlier on Friday showed candidates backed by Imran Khan leading in the election, a surprise given claims by his supporters and a national rights body that the balloting was manipulated against Imran.
A former cricket star turned politician with a significant grassroots following, Imran was disqualified from running in Thursday’s election because of criminal convictions. He contends his sentences and a slew of legal cases pending against him were politically motivated.
His party’s candidates were forced to run as independents after they were barred from using the party symbol — a cricket bat — to help illiterate voters find them on ballots.
Of the 221 National Assembly results announced by the election oversight body by Friday night, candidates backed by Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf party, or PTI, had won 90 seats. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) had 62 seats.
With the results for 45 more seats still to come and a third major party in the mix, it was too soon for any party to declare victory. But the lack of a majority did not stop Sharif’s relatives and loyalists from appearing on a balcony at the party headquarters, waving to the crowds below. People threw rose petals on Sharif’s car as he arrived to address party workers.
PTI chairman Gohar Khan told Pakistani news channel Geo that the party’s own count shows it securing a total of 150 seats, enough to form a government, though 169 seats are required for a majority in the 336-seat National Assembly, or lower house of parliament.
Observers had expected the PML-N to prevail and put Sharif on track to another term as prime minister due to the disadvantages faced by Imran Khan’s party. Along with Imran being in prison and accruing more criminal convictions, election officials and police blocked his party from holding rallies and opening campaign offices, and its online events were blocked.
The PTI said the moves were intended to prevent them from competing in the election and gaining momentum with voters.
Sharif’s most likely coalition partner would be the Pakistan Peoples Party of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of the assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who was in third place with 51 seats. Final results were expected by midnight or early Saturday.
Pakistan’s deeply divided political climate is unlikely to produce a strong coalition pushing for the betterment of the country, grappling with high inflation, year-round energy outages, and militant attacks. Sharif’s rivals, including Bilawal, criticised him on the campaign trail so the coalition he seeks is apparently aimed at keeping Khan in prison and the PTI out of politics.
Sporadic violence and an unprecedented nationwide cellphone service shutdown overshadowed Thursday’s voting.
The chief election commissioner previously said the results would be communicated to the oversight body by early Friday and released to the public after that, but this started only at midday. The Interior Ministry attributed the delay to a “lack of connectivity” resulting from security precautions.
The Election Commission has also started announcing election results for the country’s four provincial assemblies, a vote also held Thursday. The commission posted those results on its website more than 15 hours after polls closed.