Shocking Opposition Victory Throws Pakistan Into Chaos

The party of the imprisoned former prime minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, won the most seats in parliamentary elections this week, delivering a strong rebuke to the country’s powerful generals and throwing the political system into chaos.

While military leaders had hoped the election would put an end to the political turmoil that has consumed the country since Mr. Khan’s ouster in 2022, it has instead plunged it into an even deeper crisis, analysts said.

Never before in the country’s history has a politician seen such success in an election without the backing of the generals — much less after facing their iron fist.

In voting on Thursday, candidates from Mr. Khan’s party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or P.T.I., appeared to win about 97 seats in the National Assembly, the lower house of Parliament, the country’s election commission reported on Saturday. The military’s preferred party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, or P.M.L.N., led by a three-time former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, won at least 73 seats, the commission said. Only seven seats were left unaccounted for — not enough to change the outcome as reported by the commission.

While candidates aligned with Mr. Khan were set to be the largest group in Parliament, they still fell short of a simple majority — setting off a race between the parties of Mr. Khan and Mr. Sharif to win over other lawmakers and establish a coalition government.

Leaders of Mr. Khan’s party also said they planned court challenges in dozens of races that they believe were rigged by the military, and said they would urge their followers to hold peaceful protests if the remaining results were not released by Sunday.

The success of Mr. Khan’s party was a head-spinning upset in an election that the military thought would be an easy victory for Mr. Sharif. Ahead of last week’s election, Pakistan’s powerful generals had jailed Mr. Khan, arrested candidates allied with him and intimidated his supporters to clear his party from the playing field — or so they thought. Instead, the election results confirmed that Mr. Khan remains a formidable force in Pakistani politics, his ouster and subsequent imprisonment.

On Friday evening, Mr. Khan’s party released a victory speech using a computer-generated voice to simulate that of Mr. Khan, who has been jailed since August. “I congratulate you all for your election 2024 victory. I had full confidence that you would all come out to vote,” the A.I.-generated voice said. “Your massive turnout has stunned everybody.”

The success of Mr. Khan’s party upended the decades-old political playbook governing Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation of 240 million. Throughout those years, the military has wielded ultimate authority, guiding its politics behind a veil of secrecy, and civilian leaders have typically risen to power only with its support — or been driven from office by its heavy hand.

The vote also showed that Mr. Khan’s strategy of preaching reform and railing against the military has resonated deeply with Pakistanis — particularly young people — who are disillusioned with the political system. It also proved that his loyal base of supporters was seemingly immune to the military’s old tactics for demoralizing voters, including arresting supporters and issuing long prison sentences to their political leaders days before the vote.

Mr. Khan, a former cricket star turned populist politician, was sentenced to a total of 34 years in prison after being convicted in four separate cases on charges that included leaking state secrets and unlawful marriage, and that he has called politically motivated.

Three of those verdicts were issued just days before the vote — an old tactic used by the military, analysts say. But early estimates show that around 48 percent of the voters turned out for the election, according to the Free and Fair Election Network, an organization of civil society groups. Voter turnout in the country’s past two elections was about 50 percent, the organization said.

The results were “both an anti-establishment vote and also a vote against the status quo, against the two other major political parties that have been ruling the country and their dynastic politics,” Zahid Hussain, an analyst based in Islamabad, said, referring to the military as the establishment.

Without a simple majority, most analysts believe it will be difficult for Mr. Khan’s party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or P.T.I., to form a government. Some P.T.I. leaders have also suggested that the party would rather remain in the opposition than lead a weakened coalition government with Mr. Khan still behind bars.

Despite lagging behind in the polls, on Friday Mr. Sharif gave a victory speech in front of a crowd of supporters of his party, P.M.L.N. He also invited other parties to join his in forming a coalition government, suggesting that such a coalition would not include P.T.I.

“We are inviting everyone today to rebuild this injured Pakistan and sit with us,” he said in a speech in Lahore, the capital of Punjab Province.

But any coalition Mr. Sharif manages to form will face serious political challenges. The coalition government led by P.M.L.N. after Mr. Khan’s ouster was deeply unpopular and widely criticized failing to address an economic crisis that has battered the country and sent inflation to record highs.

The incoming government is also likely to face a serious legitimacy crisis. The election on Thursday has also been criticized by some as one of the least credible in the country’s history, and delays in releasing the election results have led to widespread allegations that the military tampered with the vote count to tip the scales back in P.M.L.N.’s favor.

With P.T.I. promising bruising and lengthy court battles over the results, it could be some time before any party manages to form a government.

“We will pursue all legal options, and we will pursue all constitutional options,” said the P.T.I. leader, Raoof Hasan.

Zia ur-Rehman contributed reporting.