The deposed Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan's party has swept by-elections in the country's most populous Punjab province, dealing a heavy blow to the ruling coalition led by Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) on its home turf.
According to preliminary results on Monday, Khan's Pakistan Tehreek e Insaaf (PTI) walked away with 15 out of the 20 seats up for grabs while the 13-party alliance led by the incumbent prime minister Shehbaz Sharif's PML-N won only 4 and 1 seat went to an independent candidate.
Defense Minister Khawaja Asif and other senior PML-N leaders in separate statements congratulated the PTI for its “historic” victory.
“We accept the opinion of the public. They are constitutionally the real decision-makers and this is democracy,” said Marriyum Aurangzeb, federal information minister.
PTI's thumping win means the likely end of a short reign of PM Sharif's son Hamza Sharif as Punjab chief minister.
The win is seen as a popularity test for the cricketer-turned-politician, whose government was dismissed by a no-confidence vote in April.
It is also seen as a bellwether for national elections that must be held by October next year.
After the win in Punjab, the country's most populous province, Imran Khan once again called for early elections.
"The only way forward from here is to hold free and transparent elections," Khan tweeted early Monday after the Punjab votes were tallied. "Any other way will only lead to increased political uncertainty and further economic chaos."
Imran Khan has drawn thousands to his massive street rallies since being ousted, giving lengthy speeches and claiming the government was imposed on Pakistan through a US-led conspiracy.
He also blames the current Sharif government for soaring inflation, which is taking a heavy toll on people in the South Asian country.
Sharif raised fuel prices by more than 50 percent in less than two months to meet conditions for an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan.
Last week, Pakistan and the IMF agreed to revive a bailout financial package for the cash-strapped nation to help it tackle a payment crisis in the wake of high global price of energy imports.
"A bitter taste of unpopular decisions," read a headline in the influential Dawn newspaper over a front-page analysis. Pakistan newspapers suggested the loss in Punjab was the result of the economic hardships currently felt by the nation.
Pakistan is spending much of its income on foreign debt repayment obligations.