Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said on Friday that he will seek to form a coalition government after his party trailed the independent candidates of his rival Imran Khan in preliminary results following the country’s parliamentary election.
Mr Sharif told reporters he was sending his younger brother, former premier Shehbaz Sharif, to meet the leaders of other parties to join the coalition.
Nawaz Sharif had rejected the idea of a coalition just a day earlier, saying he wanted a single party running Pakistan.
He also asked independent candidates with a parliamentary seat to enter the coalition.
“I don’t want to fight with those who are in the mood for fighting,” he said. “We will have to sit together to settle all matters.”
He spoke after results earlier Friday showed candidates backed by imprisoned Khan leading in the election, a surprise given claims by his supporters and a national rights body that the balloting was manipulated against Khan.
Khan, a former cricket star turned Islamist politician with a significant grassroots following, was disqualified from running in Thursday’s election because of criminal convictions against him.
He contends his sentences and the more than 150 legal cases still pending against him were politically motivated.
His party’s candidates had to run as independents in the election after they were barred from using the party symbol — a cricket bat — to help illiterate voters find them on ballots.
With 90% of the 266 National Assembly results announced by the election oversight body, candidates backed by Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, or PTI, had won 98 seats.
The Pakistan Muslim League party of three-time premier Mr Sharif, had 67 seats.
Mr Sharif’s most likely coalition partner would be the Pakistan People’s Party of Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, the son of the assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was in third place with 51 seats.
Final results are expected by midnight.
Mr Bhutto-Zardari did not respond to requests for comment about his party’s performance.
Observers had expected Mr Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League to prevail and put him on track for a fourth term as prime minister due to the disadvantages faced by Khan’s party.
Along with Khan imprisoned and facing more criminal convictions, election officials and police blocked his party from holding rallies and opening campaign offices, and its online events were blocked.
The PTI said the moves were intended to prevent them from competing and gaining momentum with voters.
The party used artificial intelligence to deliver a victory speech by Khan.
In the audio, the voice replicating Khan’s congratulated his followers, saying: “I had faith in you. Your massive turnout frightened everyone. Nobody can stop us. Don’t be scared. Celebrate.”
Pakistan’s deeply divided political climate is unlikely to produce a strong coalition pushing for the betterment of a country grappling with high inflation, year-round energy outages and militant attacks.
Mr Sharif’s rivals, including Mr Bhutto-Zardari, criticised him on the campaign trail, so the coalition he seeks is apparently aimed at keeping Khan in prison and the PTI out of politics.
US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the elections included undue restrictions on freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly.
“We condemn electoral violence, restrictions on the exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including attacks on media workers, and restrictions on access to the internet and telecommunication services, and are concerned about allegations of interference in the electoral process,” Mr Miller said.
It called on authorities to ensure “a timely and full investigation” of all reported election irregularities.
Police said two people were killed and six were injured in the northwest district of Shangla after clashes broke out between Khan supporters and officers.
Police official Sadique Khan said hundreds of PTI supporters rallied to protest against vote rigging.
Police swung batons and fired tear gas to disperse the crowd.
PTI supporters also protested against vote rigging in Peshawar city, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
The circumstances of Mr Sharif and Mr Kahn on election day represented a reversal of fortunes for the two men.
Mr Sharif returned to Pakistan in October after four years of self-imposed exile abroad to avoid serving prison sentences.
Within weeks of his return, his convictions were overturned, leaving him free to seek a fourth term in office.