Nawaz Sharif declared victory for his center-right party in Pakistan’s landmark elections Saturday, as unofficial partial results put him on course to win a historic third term as premier.
The result represented a remarkable comeback for a man who was deposed as premier in a 1999 military coup and came after millions of people defied polling day attacks that left 24 dead to participate in the high-turnout vote.
Flanked by his close family, Sharif gave a victory speech to hundreds of jubilant supporters who shouted “Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif” at his center-right Pakistan Muslim League-N party headquarters in Lahore.
“Whatever promises we made with our youth, I assure you that we fulfill each of them. Results are still coming but there is a confirmation that PML-N will emerge as the largest party,” he said, inviting other parties to work with him.
According to the unofficial, partial results it appeared that no single party would win a simple majority of 172 seats in the national assembly, raising the prospect of protracted talks to form a coalition government.
Sharif struck a conciliatory tone following a high-voltage campaign that saw him clash with his main rival, cricket star Imran Khan, whose promises of reform and ending corruption struck a chord with middle-class and youth voters.
“I appeal for all parties to come to the table and sit with me and solve the country’s problems,” Sharif said.
The election was fought over the country’s tanking economy, an appalling energy crisis that causes power cuts of up to 20 hours a day, the alliance in the US-led war on terror, chronic corruption and the dire need for development.
It marked the first time an elected civilian administration completed a full term and handed power to another through the ballot box in a country where there have been three military coups and four military rulers.
Earlier in the evening, both Sharif and Khan won seats they had contested in.
An election commission spokesman said turnout was more than 50 percent and expected to reach up to 60 percent, which would make it the highest since 1977.
More than 86 million people were eligible to vote for the 342-member national assembly and four provincial assemblies in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab, Sindh and Baluchistan.
Queues formed outside polling stations in Pakistan’s main cities where people spoke enthusiastically about exercising their democratic right and voting for change, although some expressed nervousness about security.
Voting in Pakistan’s financial hub Karachi was marred by allegations of rigging from rival parties, and the election commission ordered a re-vote in more than 30 polling stations in one constituency over accusations of ballot stuffing.
Taliban bombers targeted an ANP candidate, killing 11 other people, including a small child, and wounding around 40, police said. Another person was killed and three wounded when a low-intensity bomb exploded in a bus elsewhere in the city.
Gunmen shot dead 10 people in the restive southwest province of Balochistan, where turnout was low, while two people were killed and 11 wounded when a remote-controlled bomb exploded outside a polling station in a Peshawar suburb.
Police said five paramilitary soldiers in the west of Karachi were wounded by a suicide-bomber on an explosive-laden motorbike.
Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami boycotted polls in Karachi after accusing the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), which controls the city, of fraud and violence.
The MQM denied the allegations.
The election commission raised concerns about threats to its staff in the port city, which it says prevented them from performing their duties
But the organization was quick to praise the polls as voting ended, with commission secretary Ishtiaq Ahmed saying: “Ninety-nine percent of our job was correct and all the matters were accurate.”
Analyst Imtiaz Gul said he believed high turnout was due to Khan galvanizing millions of first-time voters, but in the end it did not translate into the seats he needed for victory.
More than 600,000 security personnel deployed to protect the vote and Pakistan sealed its border with Afghanistan and Iran to boost security after pre-election violence killed at least 127 people, according to an AFP tally.
The outgoing center-left PPP ran a lackluster campaign, with its chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari too young to run and hounded by security threats.
The party suffered further humiliation when its outgoing prime minister, Raja Pervez Ashraf, lost his seat in Rawalpindi to relative unknown Raja Javed Ikhlas by a crushing margin of more than 55,000 votes.
Sharif served as prime minister from 1990-93, when he was sacked for corruption, and from 1997-99, when he was deposed by the military, although his family says he is a changed man who will this time govern more successfully.