Former Prime Minister of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif speaks, flanked by his daughter and politician Maryam Nawaz Sharif and his brother and former Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif, at the party office of Pakistan Muslim League (N) at Model Town in Lahore, Pakistan, February 9, 2024. Image Credit: Reuters

Lahore: Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif changed tack on Friday and said he will seek to form a coalition government after his party trailed independent candidates of his rival Imran Khan in preliminary results a day after the country’s parliamentary election.

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, when he told reporters after casting his vote that he wanted a single party running Pakistan.

“We don’t have enough of a majority to form a government without the support of others and we invite allies to join the coalition so we can make joint efforts to pull Pakistan out of its problems,” he said.

He spoke after results earlier on 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 were forced to run as independents in the election after they were barred from using the party symbol — a cricket bat — to help voters find them on ballots.

Of the 200 National Assembly results announced by the country’s election oversight body by Friday evening, candidates backed by Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, or PTI, had won 85 seats. The Pakistan Muslim League of his rival, three-time former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, had 59 seats.

With the results for 66 more seats still pending and a third major party in the mix, it was too soon for any party to declare victory.

That did not stop Sharif’s relatives and loyalists from appearing on a balcony at the party headquarters in the eastern city of Lahore, waving to the crowds below. People threw rose petals on Sharif’s car as he arrived to give a speech.

PTI chairman Gohar Khan told Pakistani news channel Geo that the party’s own count shows it securing a total of 150 seats, enough to form a government, though 169 seats are required for a majority in the 336-seat National Assembly, or the lower house of parliament.

Observers had expected the Pakistan Muslim League to prevail and put Sharif on track to another term as prime minister due to the disadvantages faced by Khan’s party. Along with Khan being in prison and accruing 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 in the election and gaining momentum with voters.

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 44 seats. Final results were expected by Friday night.

Bhutto-Zardari did not respond to requests for comment about his party’s performance.

After many Pakistani news channels reported early Friday that PTI-backed candidates were giving the parties led by Sharif and Bhutto-Zardari a run for their money, Sen. Mushahid Hussain, a Pakistan Muslim League member, called the media tallies “probably the biggest election upset in Pakistan’s political history” in 50 years.

The Election Commission has also started announcing election results for the country’s four provincial assemblies, a vote also held Thursday. The commission posted those results on its website more than 15 hours after polls closed.