The former Pakistani cricketer Imran Khan has claimed victory in his country’s parliamentary elections, promising a new Pakistan following a vote that was marred by allegations of fraud and militant violence.
Khan, who aspires to be the country’s next prime minister, said in a televised address to the nation that “thanks to God, we won and we were successful”.
“If God wills, we will set an example,” he said.
Pakistan’s election commission has not yet released official final results, but Khan has maintained a commanding lead according to projections by many television stations. It is still unclear, however, if his Tehreek-e-Insaf party (PTI) will win a simple majority or have to form a coalition government.
Election officials said an official count confirming Pakistan’s next government was expected later in the evening. More than a dozen TV channels projected based on undisclosed methodologies that PTI would get as many as 119 seats of the 270 national assembly seats contested.
Before even half the votes were counted, Khan’s leading rival, Shahbaz Sharif, who heads the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), the party of the jailed former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, rejected the vote, generating fears that disgruntled losers could delay the formation of the next government.
TV projections give his party 61 seats. In a tweet on his official page, Sharif said “our democratic process has been pushed back by decades”, and that “had the public mandate been delivered in a fair manner, we would have accepted it happily”.
Complaints have also emerged from Pakistan’s independent human rights commission, which issued a statement saying women had not been allowed to vote in some places.
In other areas, it said “polling staff appeared to be biased toward a certain party”, but did not name the party. In the days before the election, the rights activist IA Rehman called the campaign the dirtiest in his country’s troubled journey towards sustained democracy.
Analysts have expressed concern that disgruntled losers could create instability for the incoming government, which will face challenges including a crumbling economy, crippling debt and raging militancy.
As voting got under way on Wednesday in the south-western city of Quetta, the Balochistan provincial capital, a suicide bomber attacked a crowded polling station, killing 31 people.
The election, in which Pakistanis voted for the national assembly – the lower house of parliament – and the four provincial assemblies, marked only the second time in Pakistan’s 71-year history that one civilian government has handed power to another in the country of 200 million people.
There was, however, still widespread concern during the election campaign about manipulation by the military, which has directly or indirectly ruled Pakistan for most of its existence. The military had deployed 350,000 troops at 85,000 polling stations.
In a tweet on his official account, Pakistan’s military spokesman, Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor, called accusations of interference “malicious propaganda”. The tweet featured a collage of pictures of Pakistanis handing flowers to military personnel at polling stations and elderly women kissing soldiers.
Balochistan also saw the worst violence during campaigning earlier this month, when a suicide bomber struck at a political rally, killing 149 people, including the candidate Siraj Raisani. Another 400 were wounded.
Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack. Balochistan has suffered relentless attacks, both by the province’s secessionists and Sunni militants who have killed hundreds of Shias.
Khan supporters celebrated throughout the night outside party offices countrywide. Most of them were young men, who danced to the sound of beating drums draped in black and green PTI flags.
Khan, a cricket star of almost mythical status, has appealed to young people with promises of a new Pakistan. According to the UN, 65% of Pakistan’s population is under 30.
Video images of a smiling Khan marking his ballot on Wednesday landed him in trouble with the country’s election commission. Its spokesman, Nadeem Qasim, said he had violated constitutional provisions on “the secrecy of the ballot” and his vote could be disqualified.
Moeed Yusuf, an associate vice-president of the Asia Center at the Washington-based US Institute of Peace, said the biggest challenge for the next government would be the economic crisis.
“The new government is going to be in an unenviable position, and especially Imran Khan, as he is not the preferred prime minister for Pakistan’s two traditional chief patrons, China and the US,” he said.
Khan has been an outspoken critic of the US-led war in neighbouring Afghanistan, and China’s huge investment in Pakistan, which has run up millions of dollars in debt to Beijing.
David Markey of Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H Nitze school of advanced international studies said he expected a Khan-led government to “try to renegotiate terms with Beijing, using its populism as a point of leverage, but never actually aiming to sever ties in ways that would upset the army”, which has historically close ties with China.
Associated Press contributed to this report