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Former Pakistani prime minister declares victory

Sunday - 5/12/2013, 1:28am  ET

Former Prime Minister and leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-N party Nawaz Sharif waves to his supporters at a party office in Lahore, Pakistan, Saturday, May 11, 2013. Sharif declared victory following a historic election marred by violence Saturday, as unofficial, partial vote counts showed his party with an overwhelming lead. (AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary)

REBECCA SANTANA
Associated Press

ISLAMABAD (AP) -- Former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif declared victory following a historic election marred by violence Saturday, a remarkable comeback for a leader once toppled in a military coup and sent into exile.

The 63-year-old Sharif, who has twice served as premier, touted his success after unofficial, partial vote counts showed his Pakistan Muslim League-N party with an overwhelming lead. The party weathered a strong campaign by former cricket star Imran Khan that energized Pakistan's young people.

Sharif expressed a desire to work with all parties to solve the country's problems in a victory speech given to his supporters in the eastern city of Lahore as his lead in the national election became apparent based on vote counts announced by Pakistan state TV.

The results, which need to be officially confirmed, indicated Sharif's party has an overwhelming lead but would fall short of winning a majority of the 272 directly elected national assembly seats. That means he would have to put together a ruling coalition.

"I appeal to all to come sit with me at the table so that this nation can get rid of this curse of power cuts, inflation and unemployment," Sharif said, as his supporters clapped, cheered and danced in the streets.

Despite attacks against candidates, party workers and voters that killed 29 people Saturday, Pakistanis turned out in large numbers to elect the national and provincial assemblies. The high participation was a sign of Pakistanis' desire for change after years of hardship under the outgoing government, and it offered a sharp rebuke to Taliban militants and others who have tried to derail the election with attacks that have killed more than 150 people in recent weeks.

"Our country is in big trouble," said Mohammad Ali, a shopkeeper who voted in Lahore. "Our people are jobless. Our business is badly affected. We are dying every day."

The vote marked the first time a civilian government has completed its full five-year term and transferred power in democratic elections in a country that has experienced three coups and constant political instability since it was established in 1947.

The election was being watched closely by the United States, which relies on the nuclear-armed country of 180 million people for help fighting Islamic militants and negotiating an end to the war in neighboring Afghanistan.

Passion and energy were seen throughout Pakistan, as millions of people headed to the polls, waving flags and chanting slogans in support of their party. Some were young, first-time voters and others elderly Pakistanis who leaned on canes or friends for support as they dropped their vote in the ballot box.

One man, Bilal Masih, even came to a polling station in the central city of Multan dressed in his wedding attire, saying his bride could wait until he voted. He decorated his wedding car with flowers and a stuffed tiger, the symbol of the Pakistan Muslim League-N party he supports.

"I thought that this was my national duty," said Masih, who was wearing a white and red turban and had garlands of flowers around his neck.

The Pakistani Taliban, which has been waging a bloody insurgency against the government for years, tried to disrupt the election because the militants believe the country's democracy runs counter to Islam. The government responded by deploying an estimated 600,000 security personnel across the country to protect polling sites and voters.

Many Pakistanis seemed determined to cast their ballots despite a series of gun and bomb attacks.

"Yes, there are fears. But what should we do?" said Ali Khan, who was waiting to vote in the northwestern city of Peshawar, where one of the blasts took place. "Either we sit in our house and let the terrorism go on, or we come out of our homes, cast our vote, and bring in a government that can solve this problem of terrorism."

Many of the attacks in the run-up to the vote targeted secular parties. That raised concern the violence could benefit hard-line Islamists and others who take a softer line toward the militants, like Sharif and Khan, because they were able to campaign more freely.

The chief of Pakistan's election commission, Fakhruddin Ebrahim, said turnout was near 60 percent of registered voters, the highest since the 1970 election. Many Pakistanis expressed pride that so many of their fellow citizens chose to vote.

"More political activity means more awareness," said Nasira Jibran in Lahore. "More awareness means more accountability."

The apparent victor, Sharif, is the son of a wealthy industrialist, and his party is seen to have a pro-business stance. He is perhaps best known for testing Pakistan's first nuclear weapon in 1998.

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