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Pakistan's Imran Khan Leads In National Elections, Rivals Allege Rigging

Supporters of Pakistan's cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, head of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice) party, celebrate on a street during the general election in Islamabad late on July 25.

Pakistani politician and former cricket star Imran Khan has declared victory for his Pakistan Tehrik-e Insaf (PTI) party in the country's July 25 national elections that were marred by long delays in vote-tallying and allegations of rigging by rivals.

Khan said on national television on July 26 that "thanks to God, we won and were successful," adding that "if God wills, we will set an example."

With nearly half the votes counted, the PTI held a commanding lead.

But jailed former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) ruling party, and several smaller parties, rejected the results and alleged major vote-rigging and manipulation.

Babar Yaqoob, an official from the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), told reporters on July 26 that there was “no conspiracy” and counting had been delayed by technical failures in an electronic reporting system and the tallying was now being conducted manually. The results had been due by 2 a.m. local time.

Chief Election Commissioner Sardar Mohammad Raza said the "elections were 100 percent transparent and fair," but could not set an exact deadline when the full results would be released.

With 48 percent of the total vote counted, Khan's PTI was listed by the ECP in its provisional results as leading in 113 of 272 seats that were contested in the National Assembly, or lower house of parliament.

Imran Khan Supporters Celebrate In Lahore
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The PML-N, led by the former prime minister’s younger brother, Shahbaz Sharif, was ahead in 64 seats. In third place was the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, 29, the son of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in 2007. The PPP was leading in 42 seats.

Khan's camp was increasingly confident of winning the election, although it still appeared likely to fall short of the 137 seats needed for a majority in the National Assembly, raising the prospect it would need to find coalition partners among smaller parties and independents.

Khan, a populist who has run on an anti-corruption platform, has promised voters a "new Pakistan."

He has characterized his campaign as a battle against a political elite -- dominated by long-established parties like the PML-N and PPP -- that he accuses of hindering economic development in the impoverished country of 208 million.

Khan has criticized Pakistani liberals and embraced conservative Islam as a politician, promising a "new Pakistan" with an Islamic welfare state and an Islamic justice system. A populist who ran on an anticorruption campaign, he has allied himself with extremist religious groups with ties to militancy.

He has characterized his campaign as a battle against a political elite -- dominated by long-established parties like the PML-N and PPP -- that he accuses of hindering economic development in the impoverished country of 201 million people.

He is also widely believed to be backed by the army, which fell out with Nawaz Sharif, who looked to curb the military’s traditional dominance in politics.

"Khan's ties with the military are very cordial," said Talat Masood, a political commentator and former military general. "He has said that there will be less chances of confrontation with the military and he will work in close cooperation with them."

Khan’s foreign-policy views are also I stark contrast to the PML-N. He has voiced opposition to China's huge investment in Pakistan, which has racked up billions of dollars in debt to Beijing.

Khan has been an outspoken critic of the U.S.-led war in neighboring Afghanistan and of U.S. drone strikes against militants in Pakistan.

But analysts doubt Khan can radically change Pakistan's foreign policy, which is shaped by the army.

"The room for changing the country's foreign policy in a drastic sense is very little," said Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, the head of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency, an Islamabad-based think tank.

Only hours after polls had closed, Shahbaz Sharif claimed the vote had been "rigged," citing complaints that soldiers stationed in polling stations had thrown out poll monitors from political parties during the counting.

About 371,000 soldiers were stationed at polling stations across the country during voting on July 25, nearly five times the number deployed at the last election in 2013.

"I will reject the election results,” said Sharif, who has accused the military of backing Khan to deny his party victory.

The leaders of other political parties, the PPP, and the Muttahidda Qaumi Movement, also expressed concerns about irregularities during voting.

In addition to charges of fraud, the vote was overshadowed by a suicide bombing early on July 25 which killed 31 people outside a polling station in the southwestern city of Quetta. The Islamic State (IS) extremist group claimed responsibility for the attack.

The elections mark only the second time in Pakistan’s 70-year history that a civilian government has completed a full term and handed over power to another civilian administration through the ballot box.

Pakistan's military has ruled for approximately half the period since the country’s independence in 1947, staging coups three times.

Voting appeared to be heavy in major urban centers, where long lines of voters queued up. Electoral authorities turned down a request by several political groups to extend the voting deadline by one hour beyond the scheduled early evening close to accommodate the lines of voters.

Almost 106 million voters were eligible to cast ballots for the 342-member National Assembly, or the lower house of parliament, and assemblies in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab, Sindh, and Balochistan provinces.

Sixty seats in the National Assembly are reserved specifically for women, and 10 for non-Muslim minorities.

Before the vote, Pakistan's independent Human Rights Commission said the campaign had been characterized by "blatant, aggressive, and unabashed attempts to manipulate" the outcome, with a crackdown on the media and intimidation of candidates.

Those and other allegations pointed to Pakistan's powerful military establishment.

The PML-N, in addition to alleging rigging at the polls, has accused the army of influencing the judiciary to deny it a second term.

Former premier Sharif, a vocal critic of the army, was sentenced to 10 years in prison on corruption charges in absentia, and was arrested after returning to Pakistan on July 13. He has appealed his sentence.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, and Dawn

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