Former cricket star turned opposition stalwart Imran Khan says he has a mandate from voters
Pakistan cricket hero turned politician Imran Khan claimed victory Thursday in the country's tense general election, following accusations of "blatant" vote-rigging by rival parties.
There was no official confirmation of results from Pakistan's election commission almost 24 hours after polls closed in Wednesday's vote but partial, unofficial tallies showed Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party enjoying a clear lead.
"We were successful and we were given a mandate," Khan, 65, said during a live broadcast, adding that there was "no politician victimisation" in the acrimonious contest.
He went on to call the elections the "most transparent" in the country's history.
During the broadcast, Khan vowed to tackle corruption that was "eating our country like a cancer".
He also touched on promises to balance relations with the US that would be "beneficial" for both countries.
Khan's statement came several hours after his supporters took to the streets to celebrate winning an election that opponents have said the powerful military rigged in his favour.
The unprecedented delay in counting votes, along with a surprisingly strong lead for Khan, have fuelled widespread fears over the legitimacy of the exercise.
Newspapers and television channels have been predicting victory for PTI since late Wednesday. By Thursday partial, unofficial results gave him at least 100 seats so far in the National Assembly, the lower house.
A majority of 137 seats is needed to form a government.
Khan's ex-wife, British film producer Jemima Goldsmith, tweeted her congratulations.
"22 years later, after humiliations, hurdles and sacrifices, my sons' father is Pakistan's next PM," she wrote.
The Election Commission of Pakistan dismissed allegations of manipulation, blaming the delay on glitches in new, untested counting software.
"These elections were 100 percent fair and transparent," said Chief Election Commissioner Sardar Muhammad Raza early Thursday as the outcry grew.
Election authorities have not yet confirmed when they expect to announce the results. Some reports suggested it would not be until Thursday evening at the earliest.
Election observers including a mission from the European Union are due to give their own observations on the voting process on Friday.
The military, which had been accused of seeking to manipulate the vote in Khan's favour in the months leading up to the polls, has yet commented on the situation. It and Khan have previously denied allegations of intervention.
Late Wednesday, the once-mighty Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), which had been in power since 2013, rejected the results because of "outright rigging", and vowed it would use "all political and legal options for redressal of these glaring excesses".
"What they have done has pushed Pakistan back 30 years... People will not bear it," the party's leader Shahbaz Sharif, brother of jailed former premier Nawaz Sharif, said.
He said the party was due to meet Thursday to decide a way forward.
Other major parties also alleged fraud, including the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), whose chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari echoed the PML-N's claim that party representatives were barred from monitoring the count.
The size of Khan's lead against the PML-N, when many analysts had predicted a coalition would be likely, was also increasing concern over the process, analysts said.
"The surprisingly high seat total for PTI, even as the votes continue to be counted, will be enough to trigger the suspicions of the PPP and PML-N," said Michael Kugelman, an analyst at the Wilson Center in Washington.
At least one party -- Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), which blockaded the capital Islamabad for weeks last year over blasphemy -- has already announced it is planning protests.
"This is complete chaos," said political analyst Azeema Cheema, saying she was "very concerned" about what comes next.
PTI supporters were ecstatic at the projected results.
First-time voter Fahad Hussain, 21, said the party had "motivated the youth" as he hit the streets in Islamabad to celebrate with friends.
The controversy follows a campaign already considered by some observers to be one of the "dirtiest" in Pakistan's history because of the allegations against the military, and marked by the increased visibility of extremist religious parties.
Wednesday's elections were meant to be a rare democratic transition from one civilian government to another in the young, nuclear-armed country which has been ruled by the military for roughly half its history.
Khan, who captained Pakistan to their World Cup cricket victory in 1992, vowed to tackle widespread graft while building an "Islamic welfare state".
But he was dogged by the accusations he was benefiting from a "silent coup" by the generals which targeted the PML-N. Nawaz Sharif was ousted from power last year and jailed over a corruption conviction days before the vote, removing Khan's most dangerous rival.
Khan has also increasingly catered to hardline religious groups, sparking fears a win for PTI could embolden Islamist extremists.