Pakistan’s powerful army chief has urged the country to leave “anarchy and polarization” behind as two former prime ministers declared victory in an election that defied expectations.
With most of the results in, independent candidates linked to jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan have won the most seats.
But Nawaz Sharif, another ex-prime minister widely believed to have the military’s support, has urged others to join him in the coalition.
Officials have also rejected Western criticism of the conduct of the election.
With no clear outcome, General Asim Munir called on all parties to show maturity and unity. He said the politics of polarization was “not appropriate for a progressive country of 250 million people.”
“Elections are not a zero-sum contest of winning and losing, but an exercise to determine the people’s mandate,” General Munir said.
Fourteen seats in the National Assembly remain to be determined – all in the vast and sparsely populated province of Balochistan – but both Khan and Sharif say they have won.
Mr Khan released an AI-generated video message rejecting his rival’s claim and calling on his supporters to celebrate. He was jailed on charges of leaking state secrets, corruption and an illegitimate marriage, and his PTI party was banned from participating in the elections.
About 100 of the winning candidates are independent and all but eight are backed by the PTI, according to the nonprofit Free and Fair Election Network.
On Saturday, PTI chairman Gohar Ali Khan said the party would try to form a government and stage protests on Sunday if the full election results were not out by then.
Mr Sharif’s PML-N party won 71 seats and he acknowledged he did not have the numbers to form a government on his own, but insisted he could pull the country out of troubled times at the head of a coalition .
The PPP of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of assassinated Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, won 53 seats and the rest – the largest number of seats – were won by smaller parties and independents.
But it may take some time before anyone can claim outright victory, even as Mr Sharif’s party has started talks with other parties.
As a result, Pakistan is facing a “prolonged period of political instability,” says Dr Farzana Shaikh of the Chatham House think tank.
She told the BBC that independent parties allied with Khan are unlikely to form a government. Meanwhile, many people feared that a “weak and unstable coalition” would emerge from any cooperation between Sharif and the PPP.
But Dr. Shaikh also said the elections also showed a growing distaste for the military’s central role in political life.
“Millions of people voted to defy what many believed was the desired outcome of Pakistan’s unaccountable military establishment,” she said.
The military has been described by analysts as ‘a state within a state’ in Pakistan, and has influenced national politics and power transitions since Pakistan gained independence from Britain in 1947.
The generals have staged three coups and no prime minister in Pakistan has served a full five-year term so far.
On Friday, the US, UK and EU expressed concerns about the fairness of the elections. British Foreign Secretary David Cameron said there are “serious concerns” raising questions “about the fairness and lack of inclusiveness of the election.”
But Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry dismissed this as “not even factual.”
It said the statements did not take into account “the complexity of the electoral process” nor recognize the “free and enthusiastic exercise of the right to vote by tens of millions of Pakistanis”.
There were sporadic reports of violence during the elections. Mohsin Dawar, a former member of the National Assembly and head of the National Defense Movement, was shot and wounded in Miranshah, North Waziristan, in an incident that left a party member dead, his party said.
There were also reports of a protest in the southwestern port city of Gwadar in Balochistan province, where some voters alleged irregularities in the counting of votes.
Additional reporting by Saher Baloch