The opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party of former Prime Minister Imran Khan on Sunday swept the crucial by-elections, paving the way for its government in the country's bellwether Punjab province, unofficial results showed.
The PTI won 17 out of 20 provincial assembly seats, consolidating its lead for the post of the chief minister of Punjab, the country's political powerbase, local media reported citing initial results.
The ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) of three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif could secure only two seats, while one seat went to an independent candidate.
The PML-N lost three out of four seats from the provincial capital Lahore, which is considered its stronghold.
These seats fell vacant last month, following the disqualification of 20 PTI lawmakers who had changed their loyalties and supported Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif's son Hamza Shehbaz for the Chief Minister’s Office.
Hamza was elected as Punjab chief minister in May, however, the Lahore High Court ordered to hold fresh elections for the Chief Minister’s Office after the by-elections.
The surprise victory means the PTI will not only win the upcoming election for the Punjab Chief Minister’s Office slated to be held on July 22, but it can also pave the way for snap elections, which is Khan's longtime demand.
Analysts reckon that Shehbaz Sharif may advise President Arif Alvi, a PTI stalwart, to dissolve the parliament anytime soon on the heels of an unexpected defeat.
PML-N vice president, Maryam Nawaz, the daughter of Nawaz Sharif, conceded the defeat, which is seen as a major setback for the ruling party in its stomping ground.
"Defeat and victory are part of elections. We must accept this (fact) wholeheartedly," Maryam Nawaz said in a Twitter post, urging the party to accept the defeat "with an open heart."
Khan, whose government was ousted through a no-confidence vote in May, launched an aggressive campaign, which helped his candidates pull off a surprise victory.
He accused Islamabad's longtime ally the US of hatching a "conspiracy" to oust him. He also blamed the "establishment", a term to designate the country's powerful army, for not "foiling" the alleged conspiracy.
Washington and the army have repeatedly denied Khan's allegations.