ISLAMABAD — Pakistan's caretaker prime minister on Monday defended the widely criticized delay in announcing the results of last week's parliamentary election, saying authorities took only 36 hours to count over 60 million votes while grappling with militant attacks.
Anwaarul-Haq-Kakar insisted that a “level playing field” was available to all political parties, including that of imprisoned former prime minister Imran Khan, and pointed out that election results in 2018, when Khan won office, had been announced after 66 hours.
Khan's party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, won more seats than any other in Thursday's election, but only because its candidates ran as independents after the party was expelled from the vote. The candidates won 93 out of 265 National Assembly seats, not enough to form a government. Khan couldn't run because of criminal convictions that he calls politically motivated.
The Pakistan Muslim League-N party, led by three-time premier and ex-felon Nawaz Sharif, secured 75 seats. The Pakistan People’s Party, or PPP, led by Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, came in third with 54 seats.
The two parties, which led the campaign to kick Khan out of office in 2022, were in talks to form a coalition government.
Sharif was marked as the Pakistani security establishment’s preferred candidate because of his smooth return to the country in October. He spent four years in exile to avoid serving prison sentences, but his convictions were overturned within weeks of his arrival.
The vote was overshadowed by allegations of vote-rigging and an unprecedented mobile phone shutdown. The Election Commission denied the allegations of rigging.
Kakar told a news conference that mobile phone service was suspended on election day for security reasons following a pair of militant attacks that killed 30 people in southwestern Baluchistan province a day before the vote. He said that security forces last week killed a key militant from the Islamic State group who was behind the elections-related attacks.
He said he could afford a delay in announcing results “but not the terrorism."
Kakar said the elections were largely peaceful, free and fair, and the process to install a new government could begin in the next eight or nine days when the National Assembly is expected to convene. He said the parliament will elect the speaker, deputy speaker and new prime minister.
Kakar also said people were allowed to hold peaceful protests but warned that action would be taken if rallies turned violent.
On Monday, thousands of Khan's supporters and members of other political parties blocked key highways and held a daylong strike in the volatile southwest to protest alleged vote-rigging. Separately, several nationalist and Islamist political parties in Baluchistan blocked two highways leading to Iranian and Afghan border crossings.
Jan Achakzai, a government spokesman in Baluchistan, urged protesters to “show grace” by accepting defeat and moving away from the highways.
The U.N. secretary-general urged Pakistan's parties and political leaders “to maintain a calm atmosphere" and reject any actions that could increase tensions, spokesman Stephane Dujarric said. The statement called for all disputes to be settled through established legal frameworks and for rights to be respected.