Pakistan’s former PM Imran Khan wins big in by-election

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Former Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan won six of eight national assembly seats he stood for in a weekend by-election, unofficial results showed Monday, a vote he has called a referendum on his popularity.

The by-election is the latest twist in months of political wrangling that began before Khan’s April ouster via a no-confidence vote, and comes as the nation grapples with the aftermath of devastating monsoon floods that left a third of the country under water.

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The polls were called “in constituencies where the government thought PTI was weakest,” Khan, a former Pakistan cricket captain, said at a press conference at his home on the outskirts of Islamabad, referring to his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party.

“Despite such attempts, our voters defeated combined candidates of the ruling coalition.”

It was, however, an effective net loss for PTI, which had previously held all eight seats.

Individuals can stand in multiple constituencies in Pakistan elections and choose which to forfeit if they win more than one, but it is rare for a candidate to contest as many as Khan.

The 70-year-old has attempted to disrupt Pakistan’s political process since his April ouster when he ordered all his lawmakers to give up their seats, leaving no PTI members in the National Assembly.

The Electoral Commission has so far called by-elections in only eight of the dozens of constituencies and PTI chiefs have said Khan will not take up any of the winning seats, triggering further elections.

“This was a referendum because voters knew we would not go to the assembly, and even then they voted in favor of our candidates,” Khan added.

He has also vowed to soon announce the date of a “long march” of his supporters on the capital to pressure the government to announce an earlier national election than that scheduled for October next year.

Khan regularly holds rallies drawing tens of thousands across the country, giving fiery speeches criticizing state institutions -- including the powerful military -- for allegedly conspiring to topple his government.

“Winning six out of eight seats in the face of a combined opposition is not something small,” said Imtiaz Gul, an analyst from the Center for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad.

“It underlines a reality which may be bitter for the entire ruling alliance... Imran Khan’s narrative is still galvanizing many people across the country.”

Khan rode to power in 2018 on a populist platform promising social reforms, religious conservatism and a fight against corruption, overturning decades of rule by two feuding political dynasties interspersed with military takeovers.

But, under his tenure, the economy stagnated and he lost the support of the army, which was accused of helping to get him elected.

He has, so far, emerged largely unscathed from a series of court cases against him and his party.

Pakistan’s courts are often used to tie up lawmakers in tedious and long-winding proceedings that rights monitors have criticized for stifling political opposition.

In his latest appearance on Monday, Khan was given bail over allegations his PTI received illegal foreign funding.

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