“It was a big game,” says 25-year old Usama Humayun about Pakistan’s historic elections Saturday.
Mr. Humayun spent two months canvassing in his Lahore neighbourhood in the upper middle-class Defence area, with its spacious homes on large plots of land and where on any given day before election day cars with red and green flags bearing the crescent moon and star of the party could be seen, sometimes with supporters leaning out the windows shouting the name of their leader – Imran Khan.
Victory felt certain. But it did not come in this constituency or overall for Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), Pakistan Movement for Justice.
Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who leads the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N), moved to form a new government in Pakistan on Monday as votes from the election were still being tallied and protests continued over alleged vote rigging in some cities. Projections give Mr. Sharif a near-majority of seats in Parliament.
But Mr. Humayun and a crowd of protesters that swells from the hundreds to over a thousand depending on the time of day (and how hot it is) have occupied an intersection near Lalik Chowk in Lahore as police with shields and sticks stand nearby. They have already clashed once.
Imran Khan’s supporters allege that the vote in national assembly constituency 125, or NA-125, was rigged. But the allegations do not end there. They stretch across Pakistan.
Protests in Karachi and Rawalpindi since Sunday have brought thousands on to the streets as stories began to emerge of polling stations failing to open, candidates intimidating voters inside the station and outright ballot box stuffing. The independent Election Commission of Pakistan says it is investigating those allegations.
The protests are a small flicker for now – but they could grow following an election that saw millions of first-time voters mobilized by former cricket superstar turned politician Imran Khan. Voter turnout was 60 per cent, compared to 44 per cent five years ago.
Mr. Khan’s party fell short – and his army of young activists and middle-aged supporters are in shock that the “political Tsunami” their leader promised and the enthusiasm they witnessed in the streets of Lahore did not materialize in to more seats.
“There has been massive rigging,” says Zarqa Suharwardy Taimur, vice-president of the Lahore PTI. Ms. Taimur says she visited 25 polling stations on voting and came across instances of stations that had run out of ballots. “At 11 a.m. in the morning? How can you be out of ballots?” she said in disbelief. She alleges that the ballots were used for rigging.
Aneeqa Atique, who works in business development for a software house, was a polling agent for the PTI in NA-125. She said party supporters arrived at the polling station only to learn that their names had been crossed off the list as having already voted when, in fact, they had not.
The Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) denies allegations that it was involved in rigging. Most analysts predicted Mr. Sharif’s PML-N party would win the most seats.
The seat in Lahore’s Defence that is now being disputed was a contest between PML-N’s Khawaja Saad Rafique, a senior party leader and regular TV news contributor, and PTI’s Hamid Khan, a lawyer.
Mr. Rafique said he would give up his seat if it was proven that he rigged the vote.
“[Imran Khan], please grow up and accept the election results,” he said at a news conference. “Please don’t be jealous of us,” he added.
Mr. Rafique explained that the constituency was, in fact, quite diverse – including “posh areas” as well as poorer and middle class neighborhoods. He said his party failed to carry the wealthier areas but won everywhere else in this area of Lahore.
Khan supporters were not buying it. They believed a late surge of sympathy would help the party after Mr. Khan toppled from a makeshift lift at a rally in the closing days of the campaign and broke several vertebrae.
He spoke to Pakistanis from his hospital bed and in a rousing message urged them to change their destiny. In the end, Mr. Khan’s party won about 30 seats compared to the 125 seats won by Mr. Sharif.
The outcome is a breakthrough for Mr. Khan – who up until now led a party that only ever held one seat, Mr. Khan’s own. Now it will be the biggest opposition voice in the assembly.
But his supporters are inconsolable.
“We hurt because we saw the PTI supporters at all the polling stations and we knew were going to win [NA-125],” says 22-year-old Taimur Aziz, a Lahore School of Economics student, who is wearing a party sticker showing the cricket bat, the symbol supporters would have stamped on the ballot.
In front of Mr. Aziz are two large orange tents that offer shelter to hundreds of protesters from the 40 degrees Celsius afternoon heat at this occupied intersection. Young men give out water bottles, hand fans and boxes of chicken patties.
It is not just young activists protesting. The aunties of Lahore’s Defence are out in full force – sitting in lawn chairs and on the red carpet laid out in the middle of a busy intersection, shouting in to megaphones, leading chants and calling their political rivals thieves.
“Don’t try what you did last night – using your police sticks against our sons,” says one middle-aged woman in to a megaphone aimed at police officers standing nearby.
Ms. Taimur, one of the protest organizers, said Mr. Khan’s supporters would not quit their fight.
“We’re getting started now. There’s no point in stopping now. We want this [protest] to spread to the rest of Punjab. We don’t think this was a free and fair elections,” she adds.
Nearby, a truck pulls up to the tents carrying massive speakers and playing songs in Urdu. The protest suddenly feels festive.
In the afternoon sun, beads of sweat drip down the face of Usama Humayun, the political canvasser who is still scratching his head over the numbers. There were 9,700 registered voters in the neighborhood where he lives and where he knocked on doors. Of those votes, about 5,000 were Imran Khan supporters, he said. But the reported results gave the PML-N more votes, he added.
“I could gather four or 5,000 people from that neighbourhood right now,” said Mr. Humayun, adding that the area was overwhelmingly a PTI area.