Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has claimed victory in Pakistan's general elections after early results revealed his Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz (PML-N) party will have teh most seats in the National Assembly.
The latest results show the PML-N has won 119 of the 272 seats up for grabs in the Assembly, well ahead of cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan's Tehreek-e-Insaaf party.
Mr Sharif's supporters took to the streets in celebration after their candidate declared victory at a meeting in Islamabad on Saturday night (May 11).
The election is the first time a civilian government has transitioned from one elected government to another in the country's 66-year history although the result will disappoint many who believed the election would end dynastic rule in Pakistan.
Mr Sharif ,63, the scion of a wealthy steel family from the Punjab, has already served two terms in office, first from 1990 to 1993 and from 1997 to 1999, when he was ousted in a military coup led by General Pervez Musharraf.
In his speech to supporters, Mr Sharif said: "Results are still coming in, but this much is confirmed: we're the single largest party so far," he declared to hoots of joy from the crowd in Punjab's capital, Lahore.
"Please pray that by morning we're in a position that we don't need the crutch of coalition partners."
Despite pre-election violence and attacks on Saturday that killed at least 17 people, millions turned out to cast their ballot in a milestone election for a country that has been ruled by the military for more than half of its turbulent history.
Early on Sunday morning, Chief Election Commissioner Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim said that a record 60% of registered had cast their ballots.
Mr Ebrahim also congratulated voters and law enforcement agencies and declared the poll a "free and fair election".
With the count continuing into the night, Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz (PML-N) was leading in 119 of the 272 National Assembly seats that were contested.
His party may not have enough seats to rule on its own and may be forced into a coalition, which could make it difficult to push reforms desperately needed to revive a near-failed economy.
Sharif, who advocates free-market economics, is likely to pursue privatization and deregulation to revive the country's economy which has been beset by rampant corruption, power-cuts and crumbling infrastructure.
One of the first likely tasks will be to negotiate with the International Monetary Fund for a multi-billion-dollar bailout.
He may also take steps to improve ties with Pakistan's arch-enemy, India. Efforts to boost trade between the neighbors have stalled due to suspicion on both sides.
Cricketing hero Imran Khan in the end did not have the momentum needed to trip up Sharif despite his popularity among urban youths, many of whom were voting for the first time in an election.
They had rallied behind Khan's calls for an end to graft and a halt to U.S. drone strikes against suspected militants on Pakistani soil.
Still, Khan's Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI) put up a strong fight and tied with the Pakistan's People's Party with 34 seats each.
The run-up to the election was marred by violence with more than 125 people killed since April.
An attack on a party office in Karachi on election day killed 11 people and injured some 40.
The Pakistani Taliban, which is fighting to topple the U.S.-backed government, regards the poll as un-Islamic.
Despite Pakistan's history of coups, the army stayed out of politics during the five years of the last government and threw its support behind Saturday's election.
It still sets foreign and security policy and will steer the thorny relationship with Washington as NATO troops withdraw from neighbouring Afghanistan in 2014.
If Sharif is forced into a coalition he may look to Islamist parties to cobble together a majority in parliament.
On top of the 272 contested seats, a further 70 - most reserved for women and members of non-Muslim minorities - are allocated to parties on the basis of their performance in the constituencies.
To have a majority of the total of 342, the government would need 172 seats.BLOG COMMENTS POWERED BY DISQUS