LAHORE: Former Pakistani leader Nawaz Sharif appealed for cross-party support to help rebuild the nuclear-armed but economically crippled nation after winning historic elections that defied Taliban violence.
Partial, unofficial results from Saturday’s (Sunday in Manila) election represented a stunning comeback for the wealthy 63-year-old tycoon who was deposed as prime minister in a 1999 military coup and spent years in jail and exile.
But Sharif looked short of an outright majority, raising the prospect of coalition rule, as the party of former cricket star Imran Khan achieved its own breakthrough on an anti-corruption platform that resonated with younger voters.
Khan’s party was set to take power as the provincial government in the restive northwest, where he has vowed to end US drone strikes. Sharif, too, has tapped into public anger about the missile attacks and pledged peace talks with the Taliban.
The landmark polls mark the first time that one elected civilian administration will hand power to another after a full term in office, in a country where there have been three coups and four military rulers.
Official results were emerging only slowly on Sunday but TV projections suggested no single party would win an absolute majority in the 342-seat national assembly.
Sharif’s center-right Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) was well ahead with at least 115 of the chamber’s 272 directly elected seats, according to various projections by private channels, and as many as 126 according to Geo TV.
Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf was projected to win more than 30 seats, after a high-octane campaign that ended with the former cricketer immobile in hospital after falling at a rally.
The Bhutto clan’s Pakistan People’s Party, which led the outgoing coalition government, was trailing in third place as voters punished its record of ineffectual administration over the past five years.
Flanked by his brother and daughter, Sharif gave a victory speech late on Saturday to hundreds of jubilant supporters at PML-N headquarters in Lahore.
“We should thank Allah that he has given PML-N another chance to serve you and Pakistan,” he said, after nearly 60 percent of the 86 million electorate turned out to vote despite polling day attacks by the Taliban that left 24 dead.
Sharif, who has vowed a pro-business agenda to revive Pakistan’s feeble economy, struck a conciliatory tone following Khan’s emergence as a new powerbroker in the country’s clan-dominated politics.
“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 tanking economy, an appalling energy crisis that causes power cuts of up to 20 hours a day, the unpopular alliance in the US-led “war on terror” and chronic corruption.
Prime minister twice before in the 1990s, Sharif’s historic third term will begin only after he brokers a deal with rivals to form a coalition.