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Pakistan election results show jailed former PM Imran Khan’s backers heading for an election upset

Islamabad — As long lines of pessimistic Pakistani voters waited to cast ballots on Thursday, many had serious doubts about the power of their votes to influence the course of events in their country as it faces major security and economic challenges. By Friday morning, however, results trickling in showed a much closer race than many had expected, and a much better result for the man widely seen as Pakistan’s most popular politician.

Former cricket star Imran Khan, who served as Pakistan’s Prime Minister several years ago, and his PTI party’s backers looked set to defy expectations and win a large share of the seats up for grabs in the parliament. That’s despite the fact that Khan himself is in prison, and both he and his party were kept off the ballots. Khan and his backers have always claimed the myriad corruption and other charges he’s been convicted of are baseless and politically motivated. 

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A vendor holds the poster with a portrait of Pakistan’s jailed former prime minister Imran Khan at a market in Lahore, Feb. 9, 2024, a day after Pakistan’s national elections.

AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty


The PTI faced a sweeping crackdown ahead of the vote, with its candidates barred from holding rallies and forced to stand as independents. Along with a cut-off of cellular service on election day, delays in vote counting, allegations of deep-fake videos falsely claiming party leaders had called for election boycotts and deadly attacks targeting politicians, the circumstances led to widespread criticism over the freeness and fairness of the parliamentary elections.

No “foregone conclusion”?

As official results came in Friday, they showed something few had expected: Independent candidates backed by the PTI had taken around about 50 seats in the legislature, not far behind the roughly 70 combined seats won by the two parties seen has having the backing of Pakistan’s powerful military.

“Independents spring surprise, PTI-backed candidates defy odds,” read the headline across the front page of Pakistan’s Express Tribune newspaper.

Local TV stations’ unofficial counts showed independents leading many of the remaining races, too, after the nation went to the polls to fill 266 seats up for grabs in the 336-member National Assembly.

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Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party and former prime minister Imran Khan’s supporters celebrate their lead in the country’s national elections, in Peshawar, Feb. 9, 2024.

ABDUL MAJEED/AFP/Getty


“There was a sense of certainty about the outcome,” Sarah Khan, an assistant professor of political science at Yale University, told the French news agency AFP. “That sense of certainty got upset very early on… It’s definitely not the foregone conclusion that anybody thought it might be.”

“At least I am voting”

The sun was shining, but it was bitterly cold as Ramzan Awan stood bracing himself against a brisk wind Thursday, waiting in a long line to cast his vote in Islamabad.

“I’m content, this is my fifth time voting,” he told CBS News. Despite all the criticism from opposition figures of the election being neither free nor fair, Awan said he was determined to do his part for Pakistan’s democratic system. “The political parties or the politicians never satisfy us or fulfil our wishes, but at least I am voting.”

Iqbal Khan, an IT student who recently turned 18, was there to vote for the first time ever.

“I feel proud. I have a right to vote in this country, and I did, so I feel good about that,” he told CBS News. He cast his vote for a PTI-backed candidate.

“I am doing my part, I’m taking advantage of a right to vote. I want Imran Khan to lead this nation, but he is in jail for politically motivated – and most importantly, bogus charges. I know the army has tied the hands and feet of Imran Khan. We are facing tyranny of the army, but still, I vote for PTI,” he said.

Doubts, but hope for stability

Pakistan’s military has long been accused of interfering in, even rigging the nation’s elections. Since Pakistan gained its independence from Britain in 1947, not one of its 24 prime ministers has ever completed a five-year term. The nation’s political leaders have instead been derailed by assassination, military coups and being forced into exile.

“There has been massive pre-poll rigging over the last few months, in terms of sidelining the Imran Khan-led PTI by the arbitrary use of the judicial and executive branches of the state,” former Senator Afrasiab Khattak, of the National Democratic Movement party, told CBS News. “Khan and many of his party colleagues are imprisoned, harassed and persecuted. PTI has been deprived of its well-known election symbol.”


Protests rage across Pakistan after former Prime Minister Imran Khan arrested

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Senator Mushahid Hussain Syed, a former government minister, was even more dismissive of this week’s election before the voting, telling CBS News a “preferred political outcome was pre-determined.”

On Friday, however, he was calling the results “probably the biggest election upset in Pakistan’s political history.”

Amir Rana, director of the Islamabad-based Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies think-tank, told CBS News the elections came at “a critical time.”

He said the process was “highly compromised” and, regardless of who is elected, “the civilian governments in Pakistan have limited influence over foreign policy and security matters.”

Rana said the military would continue pulling the strings in the background, and that means there’s unlikely to be much in the way of change, even if millions of Pakistani voters demand it.

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