Asia's fastest inflation just got a political crisis as Pakistan's middle class throws majority to jailed Imran Khan's party

Imran Khan’s supporters demonstrated in key cities across Pakistan as two rival parties held talks to form a government even though Khan loyalists won the most seats in Thursday’s polls.

Supporters of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party staged protests in the cities of Islamabad, Lahore and Peshawar. The crowds numbered in the hundreds due to the heavy police presence, small when compared to previous demonstrations. Several were arrested.

PTI Chairman Gohar Ali Khan asked supporters to stage peaceful protests at election offices, saying polling was manipulated and the Election Commission of Pakistan should stop vote rigging — allegations it has denied. PTI supporters should now “exercise their constitutional, democratic and political right to peaceful protest to protect the mandate of the people,” he said in a post on X.

The protests up the tempo after an already contentious election, which saw Khan’s candidates, forced to run as independents, shock observers by clinching the most seats but falling short of a majority. The victory showed Pakistan’s young voters and the middle class were disillusioned with the status quo of political parties backed by the Sharif and Bhutto clans and voted in numbers for an alternative.

Analysts say the nation’s powerful military, which has clashed with Khan, is backing a government formed by the Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party. Sharif’s party failed to reach an agreement on forming a government with Bhutto Zardari’s group in initial talks Saturday but forged a working pact with a secular-based party known as Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan from the commercial capital of Karachi.

The independents’ strong performance points to Khan’s enduring popularity among the nation’s 129 million registered voters, many of whom are struggling to make ends meet amid the fastest inflation in Asia. 

“If the military establishment and the rest of politicians join hands and refuse the transfer of power then the anger will boil over to the streets,” said Sarwar Bari, Islamabad-based political analyst and former head of Free and Fair Election Network. “The majority is with the PTI despite all the odds.”

There were reports of service on X, formerly known as Twitter, being suspended on Saturday with internet governance watchdog NetBlocks saying it was a nationwide disruption. Police in Islamabad, the country’s capital, warned protesters against gathering around election commission offices and other public institutions on Sunday.

The military, widely believed by analysts to have given its blessing for Sharif, 74, or his brother Shehbaz, 72, to lead the government, appealed for unity. “It is now incumbent upon all political parties to reciprocate the same with political maturity and unity,” Army Chief Asim Munir said in a statement on Saturday. 

The army has ruled Pakistan directly and behind the scenes for most the country’s modern history but recently said it will no longer be involved in politics. Khan has said the generals conspired with other political parties to oust him from power in April 2022 and it was responsible for the crackdown against him and his group, allegations the military have repeatedly denied. 

The growing risk of violence and uncertainty in forming a government would weigh on an economy already challenged on several fronts. Inflation is running at 28% and the latest International Monetary Fund bailout program is set to expire in March, suggesting the next leader will have to negotiate a new deal.

“Irregularities and a delay in election results could start a legal battle and this situation can also jeopardize the economic outlook in the short run,” said Adnan Khan, head of international sales at Intermarket Securities Ltd. “It seems the new government would be a weak coalition who needs to deal with the IMF.”

Competing Claims

Both Khan, 71, and Nawaz Sharif claimed victory on Friday night: the ex-cricker star Khan doing so in an AI-generated voice message to his followers posted on social media, the veteran politician to a cheering crowd in his family stronghold of Lahore. Their victory speeches came more than a day after Thursday’s elections, which was marred by a suspension of mobile phone services, security forces clashing with suspected militants, and long delays in releasing the results. 

Bhutto Zardari, 35, the son of assassinated leader Benazir Bhutto and a candidate for prime minister, told local television that his party would be a kingmaker. “No one can form government without us,” he said on local television. 

Khan’s party leaders have said PTI supporters account for about 95 to 97 out of the 101 seats won by independent candidates and they are confident in retaining these politicians’ loyalty. But analysts say they could be vulnerable to poaching from other parties. Sharif’s party controls 75 seats and the Bhutto Zardaris have 54. There are five more seats yet to be announced and the election for one constituency has been delayed.

A coalition would need 133 out of the 265 lower house seats that were contested to get a majority. Khan’s independent candidates will now need to join a political party if they want a shot at forming a government. Khan, in prison, is unlikely to be able take part in politics himself. He still faces more than 170 charges, which he says are politically motivated.

The US, UK and the European Union have expressed concerns about polling irregularities. Pakistan’s foreign ministry said their statements and many others ignore the fact that elections were held peacefully. 

“We are surprised by the negative tone of some of these statements, which neither take into account the complexity of the electoral process, nor acknowledge the free and enthusiastic exercise of the right to vote by tens of millions of Pakistanis,” the ministry said. 

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