Pakistan ex-PM Nawaz Sharif claims poll win, seeks coalition
By Gibran Naiyyar Peshimam, Asif Shahzad and Ariba Shahid
ISLAMABAD – Former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif declared victory in national elections on Friday (9), saying his party has emerged as the largest and would talk to other groups to form a coalition government as it had failed to win a clear majority on its own.
Sharif’s announcement came after more than three-quarters of the 265 seats had declared results, more than 24 hours after polling ended on Thursday (8), marred by the deaths of 28 people in militant attacks.
Analysts had predicted there may be no clear winner, adding to the woes of a country struggling to recover from an economic crisis while it grapples with rising militant violence in a deeply polarized political environment.
The results showed independents, most of them backed by jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan, had won the most seats – 92 of the 225 counted by 1600 GMT.
Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) won 64 while the Pakistan People’s Party of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of assassinated premier Benazir Bhutto, got 50.
The rest were won by small parties and other independents.
“Pakistan Muslim League is the single-largest party in the country today after the elections and it is our duty to bring this country out of the whirlpool,” Sharif told a press conference in the eastern city of Lahore.
“Whoever has got the mandate, whether independents or parties, we respect the mandate they have got,” he said. “We invite them to sit with us and help this wounded nation get back on its feet.”
Sharif, 74, a three-time former premier, returned from four years of self-imposed exile in the United Kingdom late last year, having contested the last election from a jail cell on a graft conviction.
He was considered the front-runner to lead the country, having buried a long-running feud with the powerful military.
Sharif said his party would have preferred to win a majority of its own but in the absence of that would get in touch with others, including former President Asif Ali Zardari of PPP, to open negotiations as early as Friday night.
In its first reaction, a senior aide of Khan said leaders of his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party would hold talks among themselves and also meet Khan in jail on Saturday to discuss the results, Geo News reported.
Results of the vote have been unusually delayed, which the caretaker government ascribed to the suspension of mobile phone services – a security measure ahead of Thursday’s election.
Independent members cannot form a government on their own under Pakistan’s complex election system which also includes reserved seats that will be allotted to parties based on their winnings.
But independent members have the option to join any party after the elections. Khan’s party was barred from the election, so his supporters contested as independents.
“A timely announcement of the results, leading to a smooth formation of a new government, will reduce policy and political uncertainty,” Moody’s Investors Service said. “This is crucial for the country that is facing very challenging macroeconomic conditions.”
The delay in the announcement of results was unusual for elections in Pakistan. Karachi’s stock index and Pakistan’s sovereign bonds fell because of the uncertainty.
An “internet issue” was the reason behind the delay, Zafar Iqbal, special secretary at the election commission, said without elaborating.
The main electoral battle was expected to be between candidates backed by Khan, whose PTI won the last national election, and the PML-N. Khan believes the powerful military is behind a crackdown to hound his party out of existence, while analysts and opponents say Sharif is being backed by the generals.
The military has dominated the nuclear-armed country either directly or indirectly in its 76 years of independence from Britain but for several years it has maintained it does not interfere in politics.
Analysts say a coalition government will struggle to tackle multiple challenges – foremost being seeking a new bailout program from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) after the current arrangement expires in three weeks.
A coalition government “would probably be unstable, weak” and “the big loser … will be the army”, said Marvin Weinbaum, Director of Afghanistan and Pakistan Studies at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
“Because the army really has staked its reputation on its ability to deliver this vote.”
The election was expected to help resolve the crises Pakistan has been dealing with but a fractured verdict “could very well be the basis for even deeper exposure to forces which would create instability”, he said.
Thousands of troops were deployed on the streets and at polling stations across the country for the voting on Thursday. Borders with Iran and Afghanistan were temporarily closed as security was stepped up.
Despite the heightened security, 28 people, including two children, were killed in 56 attacks including bomb and grenade blasts and shootings by militants, the Interior Ministry said.
Washington said it was looking forward to “timely, complete election results” from Pakistan, reflecting the will of its people.
“The United States is prepared to work with the next Pakistani government, regardless of political party, to advance our shared interests,” the State Department said in a statement after Sharif claimed victory.