Islamabad — Pakistan's former cricket star Imran Khan and his party were maintaining a commanding lead Thursday amid slow and tedious counting of ballots from a historic election the previous day that was marred by allegations of fraud and militant violence.
Election officials said an official count confirming Pakistan's next government was expected later in the evening.
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.
In a tweet on his official page, Sharif said "our democratic process has been pushed back by decades," adding that "had the public mandate been delivered in a fair manner, we would have accepted it happily."
Complaints have also emerged from the independent Human Rights Commission, which issued a statement saying that in some places women were not allowed to vote.
In other areas, it said, "polling staff appeared to be biased toward a certain party," without naming the party. In the days before Wednesday's election, leading rights activist I.A. Rehman called the campaign "the dirtiest" in his country's troubled journey toward sustained democracy.
Analysts have expressed concern that disgruntled losers could create instability for the incoming new government, which will face mounting challenges — including a crumbling economy, a crippling debt and a raging militancy.
As voting got underway on Wednesday in the southwestern city of Quetta, the Baluchistan provincial capital, militants sent a suicide bomber to a crowding polling station to carry out a deadly attack that killed 31 people.
The election, in which Pakistanis voted for the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, and the four provincial assemblies, 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. The military had deployed 350,000 troops at the 85,000 polling stations.
In a tweet on his official account, Pakistan's military spokesman Gen. Asif Ghafoor called accusations of interference "malicious propaganda." The tweet featured a collage of pictures of Pakistanis handing military personnel at polling stations flowers and elderly women kissing soldiers.
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. The Islamic State group 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 revellers were young men, who danced to the sound of beating drums draped in Tehreek-e-Insaf party black and green-coloured flags.
Khan, a cricket legend of almost mythical proportions, has appealed to the youth with promises of a new Pakistan. According to the United Nations, 65 percent of Pakistan's population is 30 years old.
On Wednesday, video images of a smiling Khan marking his ballot landed him in trouble with the Election Commission. Its spokesman Nadeem Qasim said Khan had violated constitutional provisions on "the secrecy of the ballot" and that his vote could be disqualified.
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 neighbouring Afghanistan as well as China's massive investment in Pakistan, which has racked up millions of dollars in debt to Beijing.
David Markey of Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies said he expected a Khan-led government to "try to renegotiate terms with Beijing, using its populism as a point of leverage but never actually aiming to sever ties in ways that would upset the army," which has historically close ties with China.
Khan is also likely to be met with trepidation in neighbouring Afghanistan, where he has been vocal in his opposition to the U.S.-led invasion that followed the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.