Pakistani women receive ballot papers before casting their votes at a polling… (Daniel Berehulak / Getty…)
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Millions of Pakistanis braved threats from militants and voted Saturday in national elections that marked the country's first democratic transfer of governance and appeared to put former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on track for a potential return to power.
The elections change Pakistan's political landscape and probably will sideline the Pakistan People's Party, which has ruled the country for five years. But the results are not expected to lead to any major shift in U.S.-Pakistan relations because the country's powerful military still holds sway over crucial issues such as Pakistan's role in peace talks with insurgents in Afghanistan and the country's relationship with its nuclear archrival, India.
Nevertheless, the elections carried heavy symbolic value, bringing the first democratic transition of one civilian government to another. Through coups and political ousters, the country's powerful military has ruled for more than half of Pakistan's 65-year existence.
The new national assembly that comes out of Saturday's elections has the responsibility of picking a new prime minister and charting a course to lead the country out of economic stagnancy and militancy that has killed thousands in recent years.
Members of the newly formed parliament and the provincial assemblies will also decide whether to select a new president or retain incumbent Asif Ali Zardari, an unlikely scenario if his Pakistan People's Party has performed poorly in the national polls. Zardari's term ends in September.
Official results were not expected to be ready until Sunday. However, unofficial tallies and media projections indicated that, though Sharif's PML-N party did not appear to have won a clear majority of parliament seats, it handily outpaced Zardari's party and the Movement for Justice party led by onetime cricket star Imran Khan. Without a majority, Sharif would need to craft an alliance with other parties to take control of the parliament.
But Sharif's strong showing suggested that he was positioned to lead a new coalition government. In a victory speech given to supporters in the eastern city of Lahore as his lead in the national election became apparent, he expressed a desire to work with all parties to solve the country's problems.
Sharif told his supporters that "we are now convinced PML-N is the leading party. Our agenda will be to change the destiny of this nation."
Asad Umar, a top advisor to Khan, said his party conceded defeat. "I congratulate PML-N on this victory. It looks like they are emerging as the leading party."
The campaign evolved into a two-way race between Khan, who in previous elections had failed to muster any significant backing, and Sharif. This time, however, Khan was transformed into a dominant political force through a campaign that relied heavily on young, urban middle-class voters, social media savvy and a furious schedule of rallies attended by legions of backers.
His 15-foot fall last week as he tried to reach a rally stage only engendered sympathy. Though three cracked vertebrae and a broken rib kept him from making a final campaign appearance at a rally Thursday in Islamabad, 35,000 followers nevertheless showed up to hear him speak from his hospital room via video link.
Pakistan's other major political force, the Pakistan People's Party, was forced by a variety of factors to run a subdued, relatively leaderless campaign. Zardari was kept from the campaign trail by court rulings that barred him from politicking while serving in the presidency. His 24-year-old son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, was supposed to help lead the campaign but had to stay away because of threats against his life from militants.
Zardari's party was further burdened by widespread disappointment and frustration with his administration's failure to tackle crippling power shortages, economic stagnancy and terrorism that plagued the country during his five-year term. According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, 83% of Pakistanis expressed an unfavorable opinion of Zardari.
Though the election has been hailed as a milestone in Pakistan's democracy, it also has been the country's bloodiest. During the campaign, more than 100 candidates and activists were killed in bombings and ambushes that occurred almost daily.
The country's homegrown insurgency, the Pakistani Taliban, focused its attacks on three liberal, secular parties: Zardari's PPP, northwest Pakistan's Awami National Party and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, which governs Karachi, the country's largest city. During the waning days of the campaign, Taliban insurgents expanded their hit list to include rallies held by Islamist hard-line parties led by clerics with historical ties to the Taliban movement.