With over 100 seats counted, Imran Khan's supporters lead in Pakistan - media

Credit: REUTERS/AKHTAR SOOMRO

By Ariba Shahid and Gibran Naiyyar Peshimam

ISLAMABAD, Feb 9 (Reuters) - Supporters of jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan had the edge on Friday in Pakistan's election results from over 100 seats, local media said, after vote counts were hit by unusual delays that the government ascribed to a suspension of mobile phone services.

Geo News said independents, who mostly owe allegiance to Khan, had won 47 of 106 seats for which it had results. A total of 265 seats were contested in Thursday's election.

By 0800 GMT, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) had announced 70 official results, with independents getting 24.

The Pakistan Peoples Party of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of assassinated premier Benazir Bhutto, also got 24 while former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) won 18.

The rest were won by small parties.

Khan is in jail and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party was barred from the election, so his supporters contested as independents.

Analysts have predicted there may be no clear winner, adding to the woes of a country struggling to recover from an economic crisis while it grapples with rising militant violence in a deeply polarised political environment.

"A timely announcement of the results, leading to a smooth formation of a new government will reduce policy and political uncertainty," Moody's Investors Service said. "This is crucial for the country that is facing very challenging macroeconomic conditions."

The delay in the announcement of results was unusual for elections in Pakistan. Karachi's stock index and Pakistan's sovereign bonds fell because of the uncertainty.

An "internet issue" was the reason behind the delay, Zafar Iqbal, special secretary at the ECP, said without elaborating.

The government said it suspended mobile phone services ahead of the election on Thursday as a security measure, and they were being partially restored.

The main battle was expected to be between candidates backed by Khan, whose PTI won the last national election, and the PML-N of Sharif. Khan believes the powerful military is behind a crackdown to hound his party out of existence, while analysts and opponents say Sharif is being backed by the generals.

The military has dominated the nuclear-armed country either directly or indirectly in its 76 years of independence but for several years it has maintained it does not interfere in politics.

Sharif, considered by many observers to be a strong candidate, has dismissed talk of an unclear result but a close aide, Ishaq Dar, told GEO TV that the party could form a coalition with the support of independents.

"I am confident that we will form a government," Dar said.

IMF BAILOUT

If the election does not result in a clear majority for anyone, as analysts are predicting, tackling multiple challenges will be tricky - foremost being seeking a new bailout programme from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) after the current arrangement expires in three weeks.

"The deciding factor is which side the powerful military and its security agencies are on," said Abbas Nasir, a columnist, commenting on the likelihood that no party would emerge as a clear winner. "Only a huge turnout in favour of (Khan's) PTI can change its fortunes."

He added: "Economic challenges are so serious, grave, and the solutions so very painful that I am unsure how anyone who comes to power will steady the ship."

Thousands of troops were deployed on the streets and at polling stations across the country for the voting on Thursday. Borders with Iran and Afghanistan were temporarily closed as security was stepped up.

Despite the heightened security, 12 people, including two children, were killed in 51 bomb blasts, grenade attacks and shootings by militants, mostly in the western provinces, the military said in a statement.

"Despite a few isolated incidents, the overall situation remained under control, demonstrating the effectiveness of our security measures," caretaker Interior Minister Gohar Ejaz said in a statement.

Washington was concerned about "steps that were taken to restrict freedom of expression, specifically around internet and cellphone use," State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel told reporters.

The U.S. strongly condemned election-related violence both in the run-up to the polls and on election day, Patel added.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also expressed concern about the violence and the suspension of mobile communications services, his spokesperson said in an e-mailed statement.

Amnesty International called the suspension of mobile services "a blunt attack on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly".

FACTBOX-How do national elections in Pakistan work?

EXPLAINER-Multiple challenges face winner of Pakistan's general election

FACTBOX-Who are the key players in Pakistan's general elections?

(Reporting by Asif Shahzad and Charlotte Greenfield in Islamabad, Mushtaq Ali in Peshawar, Salim Ahmed in Quetta, and Saud Mehsud in Dera Ismail Khan; additional reporting by Simon Lewis in Washington; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Lincoln Feast.)

((asif.shahzad@thomsonreuters.com; +923018463683;))

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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