Former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, left, meets with party supporters… (AFP/Getty Images )
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's overwhelming victory in weekend parliamentary elections returns to power a seasoned politician who historically has had rocky ties with Pakistan's powerful military and is viewed by many as soft on militants and extremist groups.
The expected showdown between Sharif, 63, and former cricket-star-turned-politician Imran Khan never really materialized. Sharif's party swept the elections, putting him in a position to lead the next government and become prime minister for an unprecedented third time.
With much of the vote counted Sunday, unofficial results had Sharif's party winning at least 46% of the seats in the National Assembly, according to Pakistani media projections. It was still unclear whether the final tally would give him an outright majority of seats, but his clear margin of victory meant he would easily be able to bring into his fold the handful of independent lawmakers and winning candidates from the country's religious parties to form the government.
Trailing far behind Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N party were Khan's Movement for Justice with a projected 11% of parliamentary seats, and President Asif Ali Zardari's outgoing Pakistan People's Party, or PPP, with nearly 12%. Official results were not expected to be released until later this week.
A steel baron and one of Pakistan's wealthiest men, Sharif served as prime minister from 1990 to 1993 and from 1997 to 1999, until the army chief, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, ousted him. Sharif lived in exile in Saudi Arabia until 2007, when he returned to Pakistan. His party won the Punjab provincial assembly elections in 2008 and garnered enough seats in parliament to become the main opposition rival to Zardari's party.
Sharif has always had a difficult relationship with Pakistan's military, which has run the country for more than half of its 65-year history and still holds sway over major foreign policy matters, such as Islamabad's ties with the United States, Afghanistan and India. Many in Pakistan criticize him for what they say is his dangerous tolerance of extremist groups, including Sunni Muslim organizations that continue to wage a deadly campaign of violence against the country's Shiite Muslim minority.
He also has espoused dialogue with the Pakistani Taliban, the country's homegrown insurgency, a position that probably will put him at odds with the military, which sees the militants as one of Pakistan's most pressing threats.
"He is softer on militants, and that will bring him in some divergence with the military," said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Lahore-based political analyst. "So unless he revises his approach, he's going to land in trouble."
During the campaign, Sharif also promised to review Pakistan's relations with the U.S. and perhaps pull back on collaboration with Washington in battling Islamist militants, a prospect that may unsettle the Obama administration. Although U.S.-Pakistani relations remain the purview of the military and its head, army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, Rizvi expects Sharif's ties with the U.S. to begin with "a period of uncertainty and confusion."
Khan, 60, was regarded by most analysts to be Sharif's most formidable challenger. The charismatic former cricketer was able to amass widespread support from middle-class voters in Pakistan's larger cities, particularly among younger people. But he was unable to garner much support in rural Punjab, where Sharif has longstanding ties with clan-based societies, or within the province's business community, which has always had a good relationship with the former prime minister. Punjab is Pakistan's wealthiest and most populous province, home to more than half of the nation's 86 million registered voters.
"I voted for the first time, and I voted for PML-N," said Manan Butt, 20, a small-business owner from Lahore, referring to Sharif's party. "Businesses always prosper when PML-N is in power."
Khan performed better in the northwestern province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, where his party was the leading vote-getter in provincial assembly races and in a position to form a coalition government there.
Widespread disappointment with the PPP's rule over the last five years bolstered the campaigns of both Sharif and Khan and led to the party's dismal performance Saturday. Sharif's candidates defeated several top PPP leaders, including former Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira, former Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf and ex-Defense Minister Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar.
Voters criticized the failure of Zardari's party to remedy crippling power outages, rev up a stagnant economy and stem the tide of terrorist attacks that have claimed thousands of lives in recent years. The PPP did retain one of its strongholds, the southern province of Sindh, where it won a majority of provincial assembly seats.