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Pakistan election: Nawaz Sharif seeks coalition talks as his party trails independents backing Imran Khan

Pakistan election: Nawaz Sharif seeks coalition talks as his party trails independents backing Imran Khan

Pakistan's former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif changed tack on Friday to seek to form a coalition government after his party trailed independent candidates backed by his rival Imran Khan in parliamentary election results.

Mr Sharif told supporters he was sending his yasounger brother and former premier, Shehbaz Sharif, to meet the leaders of other parties and invite them to join the coalition.

Nawaz Sharif had gruffly rejected the idea of a coalition just a day earlier, stressing after casting his vote that he wanted a single party running Pakistan for a full five-year term.

"We don't have enough of a majority to form a government without the support of others and we invite allies to join the coalition so we can make joint efforts to pull Pakistan out of its problems," he said in the eastern city of Lahore.

He also asked independent candidates with a parliamentary seat to enter the coalition.

"I don't want to fight with those who are in the mood for fighting," he said. "We will have to sit together to settle all matters."

He spoke after results earlier Friday showed candidates backed by imprisoned Mr Khan leading in the election, a surprise given claims by his supporters and a national rights body that the balloting was manipulated against him.

A former cricket star turned politician with a significant grassroots following, Mr Khan was disqualified from running in Thursday's election because of criminal convictions against him. He contends his sentences and a slew of legal cases pending against him were politically motivated.

His party's candidates were forced to run as independents after they were barred from using the party symbol - a cricket bat - to help illiterate voters find them on ballots.

Of the 221 National Assembly results announced by the election oversight body by Friday night, candidates backed by Mr Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, or PTI, had won 90 seats. The Pakistan Muslim League party of three-time Premier Nawaz Sharif, had 62 seats.

With the results for 45 more seats still to come and a third major party in the mix, it was too soon for any party to declare victory.

The results have been unusually delayed, which the government ascribed to the suspension of mobile phone services - a security measure ahead of Thursday's election.

Independent members cannot form a government on their own under Pakistan's complex election system which also includes reserved seats that will be allotted to parties based on their winnings.

But independent members have the option to join any party after the elections.

A total of 265 seats were contested in Thursday’s election.

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

Analysts have predicted there may be no clear winner in the election, 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.

Few results had been announced over 18 hours after the polls closed, 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 Mr Khan, whose PTI won the last national election, and the PML-N of Mr Sharif.

Mr Khan believes the powerful military is behind a crackdown to allegedly hound his party out of existence, while analysts and opponents say Mr 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.

Rival parties were claiming victory in some of the contests before the official results came in.

Mr Sharif dismissed talk of an unclear result.

"Don't talk about a coalition government. It is very important for a government to get a clear majority... It should not be relying on others," he said after casting his vote in the eastern city of Lahore.

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," saidd caretaker Interior Minister Gohar Ejaz.

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

The US 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.

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