Sharif claimed victory Saturday night after seeing enough of a balloting trend to convince him that he had sealed a remarkable political comeback 14 years after being toppled in a bloodless coup, imprisoned and sent into exile.
“We should thank Allah that he has given PML-N another chance to serve you and Pakistan,” Sharif told jubilant supporters in Lahore on Saturday night.
Experts widely agreed that his candidates for Parliament were poised to seize at least 130 seats based on still-incomplete results Sunday.
That number put the PML-N close to a required simple majority of 272 directly elected assembly seats, and in coming days Sharif is expected to easily win the allegiance of independent candidates and small parties to put him over the top.
Consigned to the opposition but still expected to be a potent force will be Imran Khan, the former cricket hero whose Movement for Justice picked up enough votes to make it the nation’s second most popular party, political experts said.
Khan, who galvanized young voters with a relentless anti-corruption message and a call for change, thanked them for their support Sunday.
“I forgot the pain of defeat when I saw the enthusiasm of the youth of this country,” Khan said in a video message from his hospital bed, where he is recovering from injuries suffered in a fall last week while campaigning in Lahore.
The election was widely hailed as a landmark of democratic progress: One elected government succeeded in completing a full term and prepared to hand off power to another elected government, a first in Pakistan’s history.
The often turbulent nuclear-armed state has seen long periods of military rule since its founding in 1947. But this time, the powerful army stood aside except to provide beefed-up security as millions of voters turned out in defiance of Pakistani Taliban threats to unleash suicide bombers at polling stations.
“Pakistan should now be treated as, if not a fully democratic country, then at least a reasonably democratic country,” said military affairs commentator Talat Masood, a retired three-star general.
Sharif, 63, is a relatively known quantity in Washington, having interacted with two presidential administrations when he was prime minister from 1990 to 1993 and again from 1997 to 1999.
He is expected to seek friendly relations with the United States, which for decades has been Pakistan’s principal financial patron but which remains suspicious of Pakistani motives in Afghanistan.
Many U.S. officials assert that Islamabad deliberately protects Taliban and other militants that battle U.S.-backed NATO troops in Afghanistan.
President Obama issued a statement Sunday congratulating the Pakistani people on the “successful completion” of the election.
“The United States stands with all Pakistanis in welcoming this historic peaceful and transparent transfer of civilian power, which is a significant milestone in Pakistan’s democratic progress,” Obama said in the statement.
A religious conservative sometimes criticized as soft on militancy, Sharif has talked of extracting Pakistan from the U.S. war against extremists, including those being sheltered on Pakistani soil, and opposes CIA drone strikes.
But Masood said that based on conversations with Sharif, he believes Sharif “surely wants to improve Pakistan’s relationship with the United States and improve the confidence level between the two countries.”
The election commission projected that nearly 60 percent of the nation’s 86 million voters cast ballots for national and provincial assemblies — a number that, if confirmed, would represent the highest turnout since 1970, when the populist Pakistan People’s Party swept to power.
The clear loser at the polls was the incumbent PPP, which will probably end up with the same number of seats as Khan’s party — about 30 — but was expected to trail third in the popular vote. The PPP’s five-year term was marred by economic crisis and energy shortages.
Sharif has promised to draw on his experience as a businessman, privatizer and tax reformer to boost national growth. His campaign asserted that he would tackle systemic problems, including the electricity shortages that have crippled important industries. He also promised low-interest loans to new graduates, in an effort to siphon support away from Khan, who has built up a sizable youth base.
Sharif cited the nation’s nuclear tests in 1998 as an example of his strong leadership. Pakistan needed nuclear weapons, he said, to counter India’s and to pressure the neighbor into detente.
He is expected to strengthen ties with India, to improve trade in particular to help revitalize Pakistan’s economy.
In many areas, the race for prime minister had narrowed to a battle between Sharif and Khan. Both men’s parties benefited from not being targeted by the Pakistani Taliban, which instead focused on the secular parties: the PPP, the anti-militant Awami National Party and the progressive Muttahida Qaumi Movement.
By some media accounts, Taliban and other militant attacks, particularly on the ANP, along with bloody clashes between political parties, claimed nearly 50 lives Saturday.