Independent candidates linked to jailed former prime minister Imran Khan were outperforming expectations in early tallies from Pakistan's election, after a long delay in results added to accusations of poll rigging.
Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) was barred from contesting Thursday's election as a bloc, but unofficial tallies on Friday by local TV channels showed independent candidates — including dozens anointed by his party — leading in most constituencies.
By 9:00 am (0400 GMT) — more than 16 hours after polling stations closed — the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) had announced just 13 National Assembly results.
Five had gone to independent candidates linked to PTI, four to the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), and four to the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).
"There was a sense of certainty about the outcome," Sarah Khan, an assistant professor of political science at Yale University, told AFP.
"That sense of certainty got upset very early on," she added. "It's definitely not the foregone conclusion that anybody thought it might be."
Before the first results were officially announced, PTI chief organiser Omar Ayub Khan said he was confident the party had done enough.
"Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf-backed independent candidates have the ability to form the next federal government with a two-thirds majority," he said in a video statement released to the media.
The PML-N had been expected to win the most seats following Thursday's vote, with analysts saying its 74-year-old founder Nawaz Sharif had the blessing of the military-led establishment.
Party spokeswoman Marriyum Aurangzeb said they were still hopeful of taking the largest province of Punjab, crucial to forming a government.
Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, told AFP the delay "suggests that the powers that be are trying to create an environment that allows them to more easily be involved in the electoral process".
"Vote tampering and rigging fears are rife, and for good reason," he said more bluntly on X.
Pollsters predicted a low turnout from the country's 128 million eligible voters following a lacklustre campaign overshadowed by the jailing of Khan, and the hobbling of PTI through court orders, a ban on rallies, and the harassment of party leaders.
Allegations of poll rigging overshadowed the election, as well as authorities' voting day shutdown of the country's mobile phone network –– ostensibly on security grounds.
Digital rights activist Usama Khilji said the mobile service blackout "strengthens the popular perception that the elections are rigged by the deep state".
Raoof Hasan, PTI's secretary for information, said in a video statement that party agents in the field had reported PTI candidates leading in 125 constituencies.
"An effort may be afoot to tamper with the results," he said of the delay in announcements from ECP headquarters.