Pakistan’s Sharif makes move

Lacking majority, ex-premier eyes coalition government

Pakistan’s Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif addresses supporters on Friday following initial results of the country’s parliamentary election in Lahore, Pakistan.
(AP/K.M. Chaudary)
Pakistan’s Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif addresses supporters on Friday following initial results of the country’s parliamentary election in Lahore, Pakistan. (AP/K.M. Chaudary)

LAHORE, Pakistan -- Pakistan's former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif changed tack Friday and said he would seek to form a coalition government after his party trailed independent candidates backed by his imprisoned rival, Imran Khan, in parliamentary election results.

Sharif told supporters he was sending his brother and former premier, Shehbaz Sharif, to meet the leaders of other parties and invite them to join a coalition.

Sharif spoke after results showed candidates backed by Khan, also a former prime minister, leading in the election, a surprise given claims by Khan's supporters and a national rights body that the balloting was manipulated against him.

A former cricket star turned Islamist politician with a significant grassroots following, Khan was disqualified from running in Thursday's election because of criminal convictions. He contends his sentences and a slew of legal cases pending against him were politically motivated.

Sharif had gruffly rejected the idea of a coalition, telling reporters after casting his vote Thursday that he wanted a single party running Pakistan for a full five-year term.

But on Friday he acknowledged, "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.

"I don't want to fight with those who are in the mood for fighting," he told supporters in Lahore. "We will have to sit together to settle all matters."

Khan's party's candidates were forced to run as independents 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 Sharif, had 67 seats.

But with a third major party in the mix, nobody could declare outright victory.

The lack of a majority did not stop Sharif's relatives and loyalists from appearing on a balcony at his party headquarters, waving to the crowds below. People threw rose petals on Sharif's car as he arrived to address party workers.

PTI chairman Gohar Khan told Pakistani news channel Geo that his party's 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 lower house of parliament.

Observers had expected 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. "I had faith in you. Your massive turnout frightened everyone. Nobody can stop us. Don't be scared. Celebrate."

Sharif said he would approach the Pakistan People's Party of Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, the son of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, as a coalition partner. The PPP has 51 seats.

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. Sharif's rivals, including Bhutto-Zardari, criticized him on the campaign trail so the coalition he seeks is apparently aimed at keeping Khan in prison and the PTI out of politics.

U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the elections included undue restrictions on freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly.

Police said two people were killed and six injured in the northwest district of Shangla after clashes broke out Friday 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.