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Originally published May 11, 2013 at 6:43 AM | Page modified May 12, 2013 at 3:37 AM

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Pakistan's Sharif headed for 3rd term after vote

Pakistan's former prime minister Nawaz Sharif looked set Sunday to return to power for a third term, with an overwhelming election tally that just weeks ago seemed out of reach for a man who had been ousted by a coup and was exiled abroad before clawing his way back as an opposition leader.

Associated Press

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LAHORE, Pakistan —

Pakistan's former prime minister Nawaz Sharif looked set Sunday to return to power for a third term, with an overwhelming election tally that just weeks ago seemed out of reach for a man who had been ousted by a coup and was exiled abroad before clawing his way back as an opposition leader.

As unofficial returns continued to roll in Sunday morning, state TV estimates did not show whether Sharif would attain the majority needed to govern outright or if he would need to form a coalition government.

But the margin of victory over the closest competitors - a party headed by former cricket star Imran Khan and the outgoing Pakistan People's Party - gave his party a clear mandate to guide the country of 180-million over the next five years.

Supporters danced in the streets overnight in his hometown of Lahore, Pakistan's second largest city and the provincial capital of Punjab province.

The election was marred by violence in the southern port city of Karachi, the northwest and in the southwestern province of Baluchistan. At least 29 people died in election-related attacks, but people still came out in droves. Election officials said the turnout was close to 60 percent, easily eclipsing the 44 percent of voters who came to the polls in 2008.

Sharif fended off a strong challenge from Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party. Khan, who led the country to victory in the 1992 cricket World Cup, had tapped into the frustrations of many Pakistani youths fed up with the country's traditional politicians.

But in the end Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League-N party managed a return to power. Even if he were to form a coalition government, the seat projections indicated that his party would have a much stronger grip on power than its predecessor.

Supporters in Lahore said they hoped that would bring progress after the previous Pakistan Peoples Party government, which much of the country saw as only focused on its survival.

"It will bring stability in our country," said Fayaz Ranjha. "We have voted for them, now it is their turn to take steps to end our miseries."

The 63-year-old Sharif served as prime minister twice during the nineties and oversaw Pakistan's first nuclear weapons test, but was ousted in a coup in 1999 by former chief of the army, Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

Sharif went into exile in Saudi Arabia and only returned to Pakistan in 2007. Even then, he was forced to sit on the sidelines as his party contested parliamentary elections after a court disqualified him from running. He had a prior criminal conviction for terrorism and hijacking stemming from Musharraf's coup - Sharif was accused at the time of denying the general's plane permission to land.

The Supreme Court overturned the conviction in 2009.

Over the last five years, Sharif put steady pressure on the PPP-led government, but wary of army interference, never enough to threaten its hold on power. This attitude helped enable parliament to complete its term and transfer power in democratic elections for the first time since the country was founded in 1947.

Sharif now faces the monumental task of governing a country with rising inflation, rolling blackouts, and a powerful Taliban insurgency.

The PML-N will also inherit a rocky relationship with neighboring Afghanistan. Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Sunday praised Pakistan for having carried out general elections despite relentless attacks and threats from Taliban insurgents.

While promising "full cooperation" with Pakistan's new government, Karzai alluded to the often hostile relationship between the two countries and his suspicions that Pakistan has in the past aided insurgents and contributed to Afghanistan's instability.

"We hope that the new elected government provides the ground for peace and brotherhood with Afghanistan, and to sincerely cooperate in rooting out terrorist sanctuaries so that our two brotherly nations could be saved from this menace," he said.

Analysts say Sharif is likely to want to assert a stronger influence over the Pakistani military than President Asif Ali Zardari or his PPP government have. Sharif's relationship with the military will be watched closely for any sign of a rift similar to the one in 1999.

He'll also be watched to see what moves - if any - he takes to reign in militants and deal with religious extremists that have plagued the country for years. Critics say the Pakistan Muslim League-N, which controls the provincial government in Punjab province, has tolerated extremist groups in the province.

"They think they cannot afford to stoke unnecessary trouble for them by cracking down on people or groups who are extremists or terrorists," said Imtiaz Gul, director of the Islamabad-based Center for Research and Security Studies. "I don't think that these guys have enough understanding of the risk."

Sharif has also been tough to pin down on his relationship with the U.S. He defied U.S. opposition to Pakistan's nuclear test in 1998 and criticized the Afghan conflict as "America's War." The Punjab government, controlled by Sharif's party, turned down over $100 million in American aid in 2011 following the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden. The raid outraged Pakistanis, and the government's move was seen as an attempt to cater to anti-American sentiment.

But whether he will continue that anti-American vein in office or take a more practical approach with the American government remains to be seen.

For starters, the U.S. will play a deciding role in any bailout package that Pakistan will almost certainly need from the International Monetary Fund to prop up its ailing economy.

Sharif will face a host of economic problems. Pakistanis suffer through power outages that can last 18 hours a day and extensive gas outages in the winter. Inflation has risen sharply, and foreign investment dropped.

The new government will need to address how to increase the country's tax revenue, reduce fuel subsidies and restructure ailing state-run industries, said Ashfaq Ahmed, dean of the business school of the Islamabad-based National University of Sciences and Technology.

--

Santana reported from Islamabad. Associated Press writers Munir Ahmed in Islamabad and Kathy Gannon in Kabul contributed to this report.

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