(BBC News) Pakistan’s powerful army chief has urged the country to leave “anarchy and polarization” behind as two ex-prime ministers declared victory in an election that has defied expectations.
With most results in, independent candidates linked to jailed former PM Imran Khan have won most seats.
But Nawaz Sharif, another ex-PM widely seen as having the army’s backing, has urged others to join him in coalition.
Officials have rejected western criticism of how the election was run.
With no clear outcome, General Asim Munir called on all parties to show maturity and unity, saying the politics of polarization did “not suit a progressive country of 250 million people.”
“Elections are not a zero-sum competition of winning and losing but an exercise to determine the mandate of the people,” Munir said.
Fourteen National Assembly seats are yet to be determined – all in the vast and sparsely populated Balochistan province – but both Khan and Sharif say they have won.
Khan released an AI-generated video message rejecting his rival’s claim and calling on supporters to celebrate. He has been jailed on charges of leaking state secrets, corruption, and an unlawful marriage, and his PTI party was banned from taking part in the polls.
About 100 of the winning candidates are independents, and all but eight are backed by the PTI, the non-profit Free and Fair Election Network said.
On Saturday, PTI chairman Gohar Ali Khan said the party would try to form a government and would start protesting on Sunday if complete election results had not been released by then.
Sharif’s PML-N party won 73 seats, and he acknowledged that he did not have the numbers to form a government alone, but insisted he could remove the country from difficult times at the head of a coalition.
The PPP of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of assassinated PM Benazir Bhutto, got 54 seats, and the rest – the largest number of seats – were won by smaller parties and independents.
But it could be a while before anyone is able to claim outright victory, although Sharif’s party has begun talks with other parties.
As a result, Pakistan is facing a “prolonged period of political instability,” said Dr. Farzana Shaikh from the Chatham House think-tank.
She told the BBC the Khan-linked independents were unlikely to be allowed to form a government. Meanwhile, many people feared a “weak and unstable coalition” would result from any tie-up between Sharif and the PPP.
But Shaikh said the election also showed growing distaste for the military’s central role in political life.
“Millions of people voted to defy what many believed was the preferred outcome by Pakistan’s unaccountable military establishment,” she said.
The army has been described by analysts as “a state within a state” in Pakistan, and it has influenced national politics and power transitions since Pakistan gained independence from Britain in 1947.
The generals have staged three coups, and no prime minister in Pakistan has so far served a full five-year term.
On Friday the US, UK, and EU each expressed concerns about the fairness of the election. UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron said there were “serious concerns,” raising questions “about the fairness and lack of inclusivity of the elections.”
But Pakistan’s foreign ministry rejected this as “not even factual.”
It said the statements neither took into account “the complexity of the electoral process” nor acknowledged Pakistanis’ “free and enthusiastic exercise of the right to vote by tens of millions of Pakistanis.”
There were sporadic reports of violence during the election. A former National Assembly member and head of National Defense Movement Party, Mohsin Dawar, was shot in Miranshah, North Waziristan, in an incident that killed a fellow party member, his party said.
There were also reports of a protest in the southwestern port city of Gwadar in Balochistan province, where some voters alleged irregularities in vote counting.