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What just happened in Pakistan’s election? And what happens next?

Supporters of Pakistan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf party greet their leader, Imran Khan, during a campaign rally in Islamabad, Pakistan, on July 21. Pakistan held a general election July 25, but the early results have been contested. (AP)

Pakistan just held a national election Wednesday, but it ended in a major controversy. A few hours after the vote count began on election night, results stopped trickling in from polling stations. Since then, major political parties have alleged systematic manipulation and rigging. Results — to the extent that they are available — suggest a victory for the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).

The election was essentially between Pakistan’s two largest political parties, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the PTI. Pre-election polls suggested the two parties were locked in a tight contest. The unofficial results showed PTI won about 110 out of 272 seats in Pakistan’s National Assembly. PML-N has won about 64. Trailing behind the two is the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), with close to 40 seats.

Here’s what happened Wednesday

PML-N has rejected the results, claiming the election was rigged. Other major political parties across the country are alleging the same. All are alleging their polling agents — party workers required to be present at the time of the vote count — were evicted from the polling stations during the vote count. They also complained about the inordinate delay in the release of preliminary results by the Election Commission of Pakistan — scheduled by Pakistani election law for 2 a.m. on the night/morning after the election.

The Election Commission insists the delay was due to a technical problem. It claims the electronic result transmission system collapsed, preventing the uploading of the results. But it hasn’t addressed the issue of why the polling agents were evicted from the polling stations.

There were allegations of military meddling even before the polls opened

Election day, however, was not when the elections first became controversial. Long before the elections, there were widespread allegations that the Pakistani military was trying to engineer a victory for the PTI.

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The PML-N was the loudest voice behind these allegations. In early July, the PML-N chief, Nawaz Sharif, was convicted in a corruption case for amassing wealth beyond means. PML-N alleged the proceedings and the outcome of the case were influenced by the Pakistani military.

Sharif claimed he was being targeted by the military for asserting civilian supremacy. In the lead-up to the elections, the PML-N also extensively complained about pre-poll rigging in favor of the PTI through the initiation of targeted graft cases and threats/pressures on PML-N members to leave the party.

What happens next?

The situation in Pakistan is fluid. However, it is clear that the events of Wednesday night have cast a shadow on the legitimacy of the entire electoral exercise, heralding a serious crisis. Moving forward, these scenarios seem possible:

1. PTI government will assume power amid a strong protest movement

A probable outcome of the crisis is that the PTI, led by cricketer turned politician Imran Khan, will succeed in forming a government. Under the available tally of seats, Khan is well positioned to become Pakistan’s next prime minister. But vote-rigging allegations by the major parties could coalesce into a protest movement. In this scenario, the PTI-led government would take office, and the opposition parties would concurrently maintain a strong protest movement to pressure the new government for the foreseeable future.

2. Protests lead to a repeat election

This is a plausible but somewhat less likely outcome. On coalescing into a protest movement, the political parties led by the PML-N can boycott the newly elected parliament and demand a do-over election. If this happens, it will dramatically escalate the crisis in the country, as there are no clear rules or precedent for navigating a call for a repeat election.

But such a call would require deep coordination between all major political parties other than the PTI. As all parties have not suffered to the same extent in the outcome of the elections — with the PPP in a strong position to easily form one provincial government — there is no obvious reason to believe they would collaborate.

What happens in Pakistan won’t stay in Pakistan

The imminent political turbulence will invite many questions about the role of the Pakistani military during the elections. Pakistan has a long history of the military getting involved in politics. But it’s unclear how the military will respond. If Pakistan’s history is anything to go by, the crisis is likely to lead to more — not less — military interference.

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The military getting embroiled in more controversy can undermine Pakistan’s internal security, which is threatened by a number of insurgent challengers, such as the Pakistan Taliban and the Islamic State. For now, the military enjoys carte blanche on internal security. Key political actors generally do not question military actions, let alone criticize them. That might change.

And Wednesday’s elections are likely to alarm the two major international powers most interested in the elections: the United States and China. The Trump administration’s South Asia policy critically depends on Pakistani support. The U.S. government has struggled to elicit much in terms of cooperation — the onset of a new domestic political crisis in Pakistan makes such cooperation more unlikely.

The Chinese, on the other hand, will worry how the Pakistani domestic politics will affect the Belt/Road projects passing through Pakistan. The Chinese wanted a strong government that would focus on the completion of these projects right away. Thus, the emerging crisis would make China very nervous.

This post has been edited to correct the number of directly elected seats in the National Assembly.

Asfandyar Mir is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Chicago and a pre-doctoral fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University.