Supporters of Pakistani politician Imran Khan, chief of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, celebrate projected unofficial results announced by television channels indicating their candidates' success in the parliamentary elections in Islamabad, Pakistan, Wednesday, July 25, 2018. (AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary)

Cricket star Imran Khan leads in slow count of Pakistan vote

July 26, 2018 - 1:01 am

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Vote counting in an election marred by allegations of fraud and militant violence has been tediously slow, yet from the outset cricket star Imran Khan and his party have maintained a commanding lead.

Election officials said it will be Thursday evening before an official count confirms Pakistan's next government. But before even half the votes were counted, Khan's leading rival Shahbaz Sharif, who heads the Pakistan Muslim League — the party of jailed ex-prime minister Nawaz Sharif — rejected the vote, generating fears that disgruntled losers could delay the formation of the next government.

The winner will face a crumbling economy and bloodshed by militants, who sent a suicide bomber to a crowding polling station in the southwestern city of Quetta to carry out a deadly attack that killed 31 people.

The parliamentary balloting marked only the second time in Pakistan's 71-year history that one civilian government has handed power to another in the country of 200 million people. Yet there have been widespread concerns during the election campaign about manipulation by the military, which has directly or indirectly ruled Pakistan for most of its existence.

In a tweet on his official account, Pakistan's military spokesman Gen. Asif Ghafoor called accusations of interference "malicious propaganda."

The tweet, which featured a collage of pictures of Pakistanis handing military personnel at polling stations flowers and elderly women kissing soldiers, Ghafoor wrote that the "world has seen your love and respect for Pak Armed Forces & LEAs (law enforcement agencies) today. U hv rejected all kinds of malicious propaganda."

The military deployed 350,000 troops at the 85,000 polling stations. More than 11,000 candidates vied for 270 seats in the National Assembly, and 577 seats in four provincial assemblies.

The attack outside the polling station in Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan province, underscored the difficulties the majority Muslim nation faces on its wobbly journey toward sustained democracy.

Baluchistan also saw the worst violence during campaigning earlier this month, when a suicide bomber struck at a political rally, killing 149 people, including the candidate Siraj Raisani. Another 400 were wounded. IS claimed responsibility for that attack. Baluchistan has been roiled by relentless attacks, both by the province's secessionists and Sunni militants who have killed hundreds of Shiites there.

Throughout the night, Khan supporters celebrated outside party offices countrywide. Most of the revelers were young men, who danced to the sound of beating drums draped in Tehreek-e-Insaf party black and green-colored flags. Khan, who is a cricket legend of almost mythical proportions, has appealed to the the youth with promises of a new Pakistan. According to the United Nations, 65 percent of Pakistan's 200 million people are under 30 years old.

Cameras followed Khan into the polling station where he voted on Wednesday. But video images of his smiling image marking his ballot landed him in trouble with the Pakistan Election Commission. Its spokesman Nadeem Qasim told The Associated Press that Khan violated constitutional provisions on "the secrecy of the ballot paper and his vote could be disqualified because he cast his ballot in front of TV cameras."

Moeed Yusuf, associate vice president of the Asia Center at the Washington-based U.S. Institute of Peace, said the top challenge for the next government will be the economic crisis.

"The new government is going to be in an unenviable position, and especially Imran Khan, as he is not the preferred prime minister for Pakistan's two traditional chief patrons, China and the U.S," he said.

Khan has been an outspoken critic of the U.S.-led war in neighboring Afghanistan as well as China's massive investment in Pakistan, which has racked up millions of dollars in debt to Beijing.

Khan is also likely to be met with trepidation in neighboring Afghanistan, where he has been vocal in his opposition to the U.S.-led invasion that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

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Associated Press writers Munir Khan in Islamabad; Abdul Sattar in Quetta, Pakistan; Zaheer Babar in Lahore; Adil Jawad in Karachi, Pakistan and Riaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.

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