ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistani authorities said on Thursday full results of a general election would be delayed as cricket hero-turned-politician Imran Khan led in a partial count that opponents said was rigged.
The party of Khan's jailed chief rival, ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, called the count an assault on democracy in the nuclear-armed, Muslim country which has a history of military rule.
Any potential delays in forming a government would be worrisome, as Pakistan faces a mounting economic crisis that is likely to require a bailout by the International Monetary Fund and worsening relations with on-off ally the United States.
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 2 a.m. (2100 GMT).
"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.
He said he could not set an exact deadline when the full results would be released but it would be as soon as possible.
Chief Election Commisioner Sardar Mohammad Raza later defended the process after Sharif's party and at least four others contesting the elections alleged the counting was manipulated.
"These elections were 100 percent transparent and fair," Raza said. "There is no stain. Why don't you think the five political parties might be wrong?"
With 30 percent of the total vote counted, Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), or Pakistan Movement for Justice, was listed by the ECP as leading in 113 of 272 contested National Assembly constituencies.
Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) was ahead in 66 constituencies, and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), led by the son of assassinated two-time prime minister Benazir Bhutto, led in 39 constituencies.
Khan's camp was increasingly confident, although it still appeared likely to fall short of the 137 seats needed for a majority in the National Assembly, raising the prospect it would need to find coalition partners among smaller parties and independents.
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.
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.
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, has sought to cast this 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."
LOOMING ECONOMIC CRISIS
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 mostly-Muslim nation of 208 million, where the illiteracy rate hovers above 40 percent.
If Khan's lead holds, his party will likely be able to form a government with smaller parties and independents, avoiding the prospect of weeks of haggling.
Such a delay could further imperil Pakistan's economy, with a looming currency crisis expected to force the new government to turn to the IMF for Pakistan's second bailout since 2013. PTI has not ruled out seeking succour from China, Islamabad's closest ally.