Nawaz Sharif claims victory amid vote rigging claims

Campaign posters for Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s former prime minister, along a street ahead of Pakistan’s national election in Lahore, Pakistan, on Friday, Feb. 2, 2024. 

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Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif declared victory on Friday in the country’s 2024 General Election, one that many Pakistanis and human rights groups are decrying as neither free nor fair.

Sharif, 74, cited the Election Commission of Pakistan in saying that his party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), had won the largest share of the national vote. Multiple media reports said that independent candidates, backed by imprisoned ex-PM Imran Khan, were actually leading at the mid-way point of the vote-counting process.

Polls closed Thursday at 5 p.m. local time after a day of voting that was marred by militant attacks and charges of electoral misconduct. The vote counting was hit by long delays with the Election Commission ordering the immediate release of the results in the early hours of Friday morning after more than 10 hours of waiting.

The election, voting for which began the morning of Feb. 8, comes at an especially turbulent time for the country of 240 million. Known for its decades of volatile politics involving assassinations, imprisonments, and military coups, Pakistan is now in the throes of an economic crisis and its largest party has been banned from running in the election.

The country’s 2024 leadership contest is “easily one of the most blatant in terms of the degree of interference by the military,” Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, practice head for South Asia at Eurasia Group, told CNBC on Thursday.

“Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will almost certainly win,” Chaudhuri said as the polls opened. “But he will come in as a remarkably illegitimate government as far as the broader public is concerned.”

Sharif, who previously served as Pakistan’s prime minister three separate times in 1990, 1997, and 2013, returned from a self-imposed exile in the U.K. last year after mending a longtime fight with the country’s powerful military, which plays a decisive role in its politics. A lifetime ban from partaking in politics and multiple corruption convictions for Sharif were overturned by Pakistani courts last year. He contested the country’s last General Election while in prison.

Pakistan’s Interior Ministry on Thursday announced it was cutting cell phone service across the country and closing Pakistan’s land borders due to the security situation, the former of which analysts say was likely intended to stifle coordination among opposition candidates.

Among the most recent dramatic developments was the sentencing just over a week prior of Imran Khan, Pakistan’s former prime minister long seen as a favorite to win the vote.

Khan, 72, was sentenced to several jail terms — one of 10 years and one of 14 years — on charges of graft and divulging state secrets, which he denies. At the weekend, he was also given a seven-year prison sentence for unlawful marriage.

Khan was removed from office by the country’s judiciary in 2022 on corruption charges, and has continuously said that the efforts against him are the work of political opponents.

Formerly captain of the Pakistan national cricket team, Khan remains an immensely popular figure domestically. His political party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) — which was recently banned from running in the election in a harsh crackdown — is the largest in the country.

Khan called on his supporters to “come out in millions on election day and defeat the planners,” and the party is fielding candidates running as independents, though they did not attract the necessary numbers to form a government.

Analysts and regular Pakistanis say the country’s political reality is dictated by its army, without whose blessing no elected leader can survive for very long.

After enjoying the support of the military during his initial ascent to power, Khan and the feared institution later fell out, which is what many in the country say is the reason for the former leader’s ouster and arrest.

Videos posted to social media by opposition political parties including Khan’s appeared to show the destruction and theft of ballot boxes, and long lines of voters who had not cast their votes by the time the polls had closed. CNBC has not independently verified the footage.

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