Pakistan police clash with Khan supporters at election protests

Police fired tear gas to disperse supporters of jailed former Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan Sunday after his party urged protests outside election offices where they said rigging had taken place in last week’s national vote.

Clashes were reported in Rawalpindi city, south of the capital, and Lahore, in the east, while dozens of other protests were held across the country without incident.

Police warned earlier they would come down hard on illegal gatherings. There were no immediate reports of injuries from the protests.

Independent candidates — most linked to 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 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,” it said.

A similar warning was also issued in Rawalpindi, while dozens of police equipped with riot gear assembled near Liberty Market in Lahore.

In Rawalpindi, AFP staff saw police fire tear gas at a crowd of dozens of PTI supporters after they refused orders to stop picketing an office used to collect constituency election results.

Another gathering of around 200 PTI supporters in Lahore dispersed quickly when police moved in with riot shields and batons.

Local media said several people were detained in Karachi, in the south, when they refused orders to clear the area.

– 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 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 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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