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Pakistan police threaten crackdown after Khan party calls protests

A supporter of former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, dances as he and others block the Peshawar-Islamabad motorway as part of their protest demanding free and fair results of the election in Peshawar, February 11, 2024.
| Photo Credit: Reuters

Pakistan police warned on Sunday they would come down hard on illegal gatherings after the party of jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan urged supporters to protest against alleged rigging in last week’s election.

Independent candidates — most linked to Mr. Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party — took the most seats in the polls, scuppering the chances of the Army-backed Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) to win a ruling majority.

However, independents cannot form a government and the country faces weeks of political uncertainty as rival parties negotiate possible coalitions.

PTI leaders claim they would have won even more seats if not for vote rigging.

A nationwide election-day mobile telephone blackout and the slow counting of results led to suspicions the military establishment was influencing the process to ensure success for former premier Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N.

“Throughout Pakistan, elections were manipulated in a subtle way,” PTI chairman Gohar Ali Khan told a news conference on Saturday, calling on supporters to “protest peacefully” on Sunday.

Authorities warned they would take strict action, saying so-called Section 144 orders were in place — a colonial-era law banning public gatherings.

“Some individuals are inciting illegal gatherings around the Election Commission and other government offices,” a statement from Islamabad’s police force said on Sunday.

“Legal action will be taken against unlawful assemblies. It should be noted that soliciting for gatherings is also a crime.”

A similar warning was also issued in the city of Rawalpindi, just south of the capital, while dozens of police equipped with riot gear assembled near Liberty Market in Lahore in the east.

AFP correspondents saw several small protests by PTI and other parties across the country — most no bigger than a few hundred people — but by Sunday afternoon they were without incident.

Uncertain future

Imran Khan’s party defied a months-long crackdown, which crippled campaigning and forced candidates to run as independents, to emerge as the winners of Thursday’s vote.

Final results were announced on Sunday, with independents winning 101 seats, PML-N 75, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) 54, and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) 17.

Ten minor parties mopped up the remaining 17 seats, with two remaining vacant.

“The results have clearly indicated that no single party possesses a simple majority to establish a government,” said Zahid Hussain, a political analyst and author.

“The political future of the country from this point onward is highly uncertain.”

Still, PTI leaders insist they have been given a “people’s mandate” to form the next government.

“The people have decided in favour of Imran Khan,” party chairman Gohar Ali Khan told Arab News in an interview.

A coalition between the PML-N and the PPP — who formed the last government after ousting Imran Khan with a no-confidence vote in April 2022 — still seems the most likely outcome.

Pakistan’s military chief told feuding politicians on Saturday to show “maturity and unity”.

“The nation needs stable hands and a healing touch to move on from the politics of anarchy and polarisation which does not suit a progressive country of 250 million people,” General Syed Asim Munir said in a statement.

The military looms large over Pakistan’s political landscape, with generals having run the country for nearly half its history since partition from India in 1947.

The military-backed PML-N, founded by three-time Prime Minister Mr. Sharif, declared victory as the party with the largest number of seats, but to form a government he will be forced to cut deals with rivals and independents.

Imran Khan was barred from contesting the election after being handed several lengthy prison sentences in the days leading up to the vote.

He was convicted this month of treason, graft and having an un-Islamic marriage in three separate trials among nearly 200 cases brought against him since he was ousted.

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