Pakistan's Imran Khan on cusp of power, opponents cry foul
- Sports icon-turned-politician Khan leading in partial results
- Election official says full results delayed by technical glitch
- Party of jailed ex-PM Nawaz Sharif says result rigged
- Sharif's brother says his party won't accept results
ISLAMABAD: Pakistani cricket icon-turned-politician Imran Khan nudged closer to power on Thursday after a general election that has been marred by long delays in ballot counting and accusations of rigging by opponents.
With about half the votes counted from Wednesday's election, Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), or Pakistan Movement for Justice, was in a commanding lead in the nuclear-armed, Muslim-majority nation, the country's election commission said.
But supporters of jailed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said the process was an assault on democracy in a country that has a history of military rule.
It is a stunning rise for an anti-corruption crusader who spent much of his political career on the fringes of Pakistani politics. The stock market shot up nearly 2 percent in early trading on relief that Khan was expected to be able to form a stable coalition.
Pakistan faces a mounting economic crisis that is likely to require a bailout from the International Monetary Fund, although PTI has not ruled out seeking succour from China, Islamabad's closest ally.
Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) secretary Babar Yaqoob told reporters early on Thursday 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 around 2 a.m. (2100 GMT on Wednesday).
"There's no conspiracy, nor any pressure in delay of the results. The delay is being caused because the result transmission system has collapsed," Yaqoob said.
A Reuters reporter at the ECP offices said the main computer screen showing results in the viewing area was malfunctioning as well, with only a handful of results showing.
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 contested National Assembly constituencies.
Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) was ahead in 64 constituencies, and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), led by the son of assassinated two-time prime minister Benazir Bhutto, led in 42 constituencies.
Khan is scheduled to speak at 4 p.m. (1100 GMT), when he is expected to declare victory. Earlier his spokesman, Fawad Chaudhry, tweeted: "Congratulations to the nation on a new Pakistan! Prime Minister Imran Khan."
Although Khan still appeared likely to fall short of the 137 seats needed for a majority in the National Assembly, he should have no problems finding coalition partners from smaller parties and independents.
Pakistan's benchmark 100-share index surged as much as 1.9 percent to 42,136 points in early trading. Analysts said investors were relieved Khan was unlikely to have to rely on major opposition parties in a messy coalition.
"Now they can go ahead with smaller allies and make necessary reforms without much opposition," said Saad Hashemy, local brokerage Topline Securities' director of research.
Wednesday's voting was marred by a suicide bombing that killed 31 people near a polling station in Quetta, capital of the southwestern province of Baluchistan. Islamic State claimed responsibility.
This election will mark only the second civilian transfer of power in Pakistan's 71-year history, and comes at a time when relations with on-off ally the United States are volatile.
But campaigning has been plagued for months by allegations the powerful armed forces have been trying to tilt the race in Khan's favour after falling out with the outgoing ruling party of Sharif, who was jailed on corruption charges this month.
The PML-N, which came to power in a landslide 2013 vote, had sought to cast the election as a referendum on democracy, saying it was campaigning to protect the "sanctity of the vote", a reference to a history of political interference by the military.
Early on Thursday, Sharif's brother Shehbaz, who now leads the PML-N, rejected the results after complaints that soldiers stationed in polling stations had thrown out poll monitors from political parties during the counting.
About 371,000 soldiers have been stationed at polling stations across the country, nearly five times the number deployed at the last election in 2013.
The PML-N and the PPP both said their monitors in many voting centres had not received the official notifications of the precinct's results, but instead got hand-written tallies that they could not verify.
"It is a sheer rigging. The way the people's mandate has blatantly been insulted, it is intolerable," Shehbaz told a news conference as the counting continued.
"We totally reject this result," he said. "It is a big shock to Pakistan's democratic process."
The PPP also complained that its polling agents were asked to leave during the vote count in a number of voting centres.
The outcome of most Pakistani elections has been disputed by losing parties, most recently by PTI in 2013, and the big question in coming days will be if opposition groups will want to launch street protests, said Michael Kugelman, a South Asia specialist at the Woodrow Wilson Center.
"ISLAMIC WELFARE STATE"
Khan has staunchly denied allegations by PML-N that he is getting help from the military, which has ruled Pakistan for about half of its history and still sets key security and foreign policy in the nuclear-armed nation.
The army has also dismissed allegations of meddling in the election.
Khan has promised an "Islamic welfare state" and cast his populist campaign as a battle to topple a predatory political elite hindering development in the impoverished nation of 208 million, where the illiteracy rate hovers above 40 percent.
Imran's ex-wife, British heiress Jemima Goldsmith, congratulated her former partner on succeeding after 22 tough years that included "humiliations, hurdles and sacrifices".
"It's an incredible lesson in tenacity, belief & refusal to accept defeat," she tweeted. "The challenge now is to remember why he entered politics in the 1st place."