Any potential delays in forming a government would be worrisome, as Pakistan faces a mounting economic crisis
Pakistani cricket icon-turned-politician Imran Khan inched closer to power on Thursday after a general election that has been marred by long delays in ballot counting and claims of rigging by opponents.
With nearly half the votes counted from Wednesday's election, Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), or Pakistan Movement for Justice, was in a commanding lead in the nuclear-armed, Muslim nation.
But supporters of jailed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said the counting process was an assault on democracy in a country that has a history of military rule.
The stock market shot up nearly 2% in early trading on relief the likely coalition government will not be a weak one. Pakistan faces a mounting economic crisis that is likely to require a bailout by the International Monetary Fund, although PTI has not ruled out seeking succour from China, Islamabad's closest ally.
Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) secretary Babar Yaqoob said told reporters early on Thursday counting had been delayed by technical failures in an electronic reporting system and the tallying was now being conducted manually. The results had been due by 2am (2100 GMT on Wednesday).
"There's no conspiracy, nor any pressure in delay of the results. The delay is being caused because the result transmission system has collapsed," Yaqoob said.
Chief Election Commissioner Sardar Mohammad Raza also defended the process, saying "elections were 100% transparent and fair", but could not set an exact deadline when the full results would be released.
With 48% of the total vote counted, Khan's PTI was listed by the ECP in its provisional results as leading in 113 of 272 contested National Assembly constituencies.
Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) was ahead in 64 constituencies, and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), led by the son of assassinated two-time prime minister Benazir Bhutto, led in 42 constituencies.
Khan's party spokesman, Fawad Chaudhry, tweeted "Congratulations to the nation on a new Pakistan! Prime Minister Imran Khan", although his party has officially held off on declaring victory.
Although Khan still appeared likely to fall short of the 137 seats needed for a majority in the National Assembly, he should not have problems finding coalition partners from smaller parties and independents.
Pakistan's benchmark 100-share index surged as much as 1.9% to 42,136 points in early trading. Analysts said investors were relieved Khan is now unlikely to have to rely on major opposition parties in a messy coalition.
"Now they can go ahead with smaller allies and make necessary reforms without much opposition," said Saad Hashemy, local brokerage Topline Securities' director of research.
Wednesday's voting was marred by a suicide bombing that killed 31 people near a polling station in Quetta, capital of the southwestern province of Baluchistan. Islamic State claimed responsibility.
This election will mark only the second civilian transfer of power in Pakistan's 71-year history, and comes at a time when relations with on-off ally the United States are volatile.
But campaigning has been plagued for months by allegations the powerful armed forces have been trying to tilt the race in Khan's favour after falling out with the outgoing ruling party of Sharif, who was jailed on corruption charges this month.
The PML-N, which came to power in a landslide 2013 vote, had sought to cast the election as a referendum on democracy, saying it was campaigning to protect the "sanctity of the vote", a reference to a history of political interference by the military.
Early on Thursday, Sharif's brother Shehbaz, who now leads the PML-N, rejected the results after complaints that soldiers stationed in polling stations had thrown out poll monitors from political parties during the counting.
About 371,000 soldiers have been stationed at polling stations across the country, nearly five times the number deployed at the last election in 2013.
The PML-N and the PPP both said their monitors in many voting centres had not received the official notifications of the precinct's results, but instead got hand-written tallies that they could not verify.
"It is a sheer rigging. The way the people's mandate has blatantly been insulted, it is intolerable," Shehbaz told a news conference as the counting continued.
"We totally reject this result," he said. "It is a big shock to Pakistan's democratic process."
The PPP also complained that its polling agents were asked to leave during the vote count in a number of voting centres.
"This is the warning bell of a serious threat," said PPP senator Sherry Rehman. "This whole election could be null and void, and we don't want this."
"Islamic welfare state"
Khan has staunchly denied allegations by PML-N that he is getting help from the military, which has ruled Pakistan for about half of its history and still sets key security and foreign policy in the nuclear-armed nation.
The army has also dismissed allegations of meddling in the election.
Khan has promised an "Islamic welfare state" and cast his populist campaign as a battle to topple a predatory political elite hindering development in the impoverished nation of 208 million, where the illiteracy rate hovers above 40%.