ISLAMABAD, July 27: Cricket hero Imran Khan has swept to an emphatic victory in a disputed Pakistan election, official figures showed Friday, but without a majority he will need to enter a coalition to take power in the nuclear-armed country.
The pivotal election has been branded "Pakistan's dirtiest", after widespread claims in the months leading up to the vote that the powerful military was trying to fix the playing field in Khan's favour.
Rival parties, including the outgoing Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), have alleged "blatant" rigging over the vote count. The PML-N, which claims it was the target of the military manipulation, has vowed to fight the results in court.
But for now Khan's victory represents an end to decades of rotating leadership between the PML-N and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) that was punctuated by periods of military rule.
The Election Commission (ECP) said Friday that with only a handful of seats left to count, Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) enjoys a strong lead with 115 seats, and will be the biggest party in parliament.
The count indicates PTI will not achieve the 137 seats needed in the National Assembly to form a majority government in its own right.
Latest results show Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf had won 115 seats out of the National Assembly's total 272 seats. Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz had 62 seats and the Pakistan Peoples Party led by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari was third with 43 seats.
Analysts had long predicted that if Khan took power it would have to be via coalition -- but the size of his lead still took many by surprise, and helped fuel suspicion over vote rigging.
But analyst Ayesha Siddiqa said observers may have underestimated the depth of feeling among Pakistan's growing middle class.
"This is a middle class revolution," Siddiqa told AFP.
"Remember they grew up on this narrative of a corrupt Pakistan being damaged and needing a new leadership... In all this hue and cry, we didn't notice there is another Pakistan there that wanted this change."
Khan campaigned on promises to end widespread graft while building an "Islamic welfare state".
Now the former World Cup cricket champion will have to try to form a coalition government with independents and smaller parties, a task analysts said should be straightforward.
"That will not be a problem... The independents know that the establishment is inclined toward Imran Khan," retired general and analyst Talat Masood told AFP, using a word widely understood in Pakistan to mean the military.
The vote was meant to be a rare democratic transition in the Muslim country, which has been ruled by the powerful army for roughly half its history, but was marred by violence and allegations of military interference.
The ECP issued the results after being under fire for delays in vote-counting after polls closed. They dismissed the hold-up as a technical glitch.
The "scale of procedural irregularities during the voting process was relatively low", a Pakistani election observer group, the Free And Fair Election Network (FAFEN), said in its preliminary assessment Friday.
The group, which said it observed 37,001 of the more than 85,000 polling stations across the country, noted there were irregularities that need to be addressed, but that it expected the ECP to "allay the concerns of major political parties over the integrity of results".
International observers from the European Union and the Commonwealth are due to give their preliminary assessments of the vote later Friday.
Khan claimed victory in a wide-ranging address to the nation Thursday.
"We were successful and we were given a mandate," he said from his home in the capital Islamabad.
He vowed to tackle corruption that was "eating our country like a cancer" and touched on promises to balance relations with the US that would be "beneficial" for both countries.
Khan also said he was open to a sit-down with arch-rival India to discuss ongoing disputes in the divided Himalayan territory of Kashmir, which is claimed in full by both nations.
Khan will face myriad challenges including militant extremism, an economic crisis with speculation that Pakistan will have to seek a bailout from the International Monetary Fund, water shortages, and a booming population negating growth in the developing country, among others.
He will also have to contend with the same issue as many of his predecessors: maintaining civil-military relations.
"The civil government has to generally improve its performance," said Masood, suggesting that could help reverse the army's long-held enmity towards corrupt governments.
In the West, Khan is typically seen through the prism of his celebrity and high-profile romances, but at home he cuts a more conservative persona as a devout Muslim who believes feminism has degraded motherhood.
Known in Pakistan as "Taliban Khan" for his calls to hold talks with insurgents, he increasingly catered to religious hardliners during the campaign -- particularly over the hugely inflammatory charge of blasphemy -- spurring fears his leadership could embolden extremists.