According to early results, Khan’s center-right Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) has been swept to power, gaining an unexpectedly strong mandate, but failing to win a majority in the National Assembly.
In the latest official count, Khan’s party had won 119 seats out of a potential 272 seats, with 219 having been declared.
The apparent victory of the 65-year-old populist, who campaigned as a “change” candidate bent on building a “new Pakistan,” has widely been trumpeted as “historic” for breaking of the two-party duopoly that has dominated national politics for decades.
Banking on his huge popularity as a sports celebrity and the PTI’s success as a regional party, his anti-graft mantra struck a chord with disenchanted young and middle-class Pakistanis.
However, the delayed election results have intensified cries of foul play after every political party except Khan’s alleged ballot-rigging. Some claim their monitors did not receive final counts or were asked to leave polling stations before tallying was finished.
“If they take to the streets, then there could be considerable unrest,” said Michael Kugelman, South Asia expert at the US-based Wilson Center.
“Given that seemingly every Pakistani political party other than the PTI has alleged fraud, there could be quite a few people on the streets.”
The vote — only the second democratic transition in Pakistan’s 71-year history — was also overshadowed by hundreds of political arrests, a massive crackdown on the media and increasing tensions over allegations that the powerful military covertly backed Khan.
Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif was ousted from office last year over corruption-related charges, which led to his imprisonment earlier this month.
Sharif’s brother, Shahbaz, leader of the incumbent Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N), said on Twitter there had been “massive rigging” in Khan’s favor.
The leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, son of the late leader Benazir Bhutto, also took to Twitter to say he would reject the results over concerns of ballot-rigging, saying it was “inexcusable (and) outrageous.”
Analysts said that tensions may mount if international organizations that monitored the election cast aspersions on the vote’s probity.
The European Commission’s team was due to hand down its verdict on Friday. Parties who have rejected the vote are also due to meet Friday to agree a joint strategy.
“Allegations of procedural irregularities in the post polling phase by several parties need to be investigated,” said columnist Mosharraf Zaidi, adding the election commission needed to explain the delay in announcements of results, particularly in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, where the results bucked expectations.
On Friday morning, the possibility of upheaval appeared to be receding. The PML-N has said it would not boycott the National Assembly, the Dawn newspaper reported, which would have been a significant setback for Khan.
The prospect of a long drawn out agitation or protests are limited, said Zaidi, because the other main parties did relatively well in the polls.
Claims of election rigging are commonplace in Pakistan. In 2014 thousands of Khan’s supporters marched on the capital Islamabad to demand Nawaz Sharif’s resignation amid claims of vote-rigging during previous year’s general elections.
They staged a four-month protest, which analysts said, enjoyed the sympathy of the army who wanted to hamper Sharif’s rule.
“The military is unlikely to back the opposition this time around, and if domestic and international observers conclude that it was a fair election, opposition momentum will lose steam,” said Umair Javed, a political analyst.
Javed said that Khan’s may also avoid a political stand-off by negotiating with the parties. PML-N members may barter in return for a reduction of the 10-year prison sentence handed to Nawaz Sharif, he said.
The PPP meanwhile will be likely muted because it needs government spending to implement its agenda in its Sindh province stronghold, added Javed.
Opposition to the result may be limited as well because Khan’s declaration of victory was greeted by many in Pakistan with optimism.
Khan was widely credited with having given a statesman’s performance that set aside partisan rivalry and called for unity in facing Pakistan’s looming economic crisis.
Dawn newspaper, which bore much of the brunt of the pre-election media crackdown, urged a cross-party reconciliation.
“Imran Khan’s acceptance speech yesterday was an encouraging sign,” it said in an editorial. “Opposition parties should route their complaints and protests through official channels.”
Many are prepared to give a Khan administration a fair chance. Nadir Cheema, an academic at London’s SOAS, said that even though he opposed PTI’s conservative politics and its links with the military establishment, he would respect the results.
“Despite the pre-poll rigging, intimidation and an unlevelled playing field, I support the weakest form of democracy,” rather than none at all, he said.
The leader of the next government of Pakistan, an Islamic republic of 207 million people, will have to deal with a massive debt crisis and a febrile political atmosphere.
The nuclear-armed state also faces uncertainty over its relationships with the United States — which has cut military aid due to Islamabad’s alleged support for the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan — and China, which has financed multibillion-dollar infrastructure projects in the South Asian country.