Nawaz Sharif Expected To Win Pakistan's Elections

In Pakistan, two-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is quickly moving to form a central government for a third time in this volatile country. Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League has amassed a commanding lead in unofficial returns from Saturday's election.

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The last time Nawaz Sharif was prime minister of Pakistan, it did not work out so well for him. Sharif won a big election, moved to consolidate his power, and named a new army chief - only to see that same general overthrow him in a coupe in 1999.

INSKEEP: Sharif ended up in exile for years. But now, he's heading back to power, after the party his family dominates won the largest share of seats in Pakistan's national parliamentary election.

GREENE: The good news for Sharif is that he won. The bad news is that he now must govern. His country faces insurgents and economic mess, and tangled relations with its most important ally, the United States.

From Lahore, Pakistan, here's NPR's Julie McCarthy.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Nawaz Sharif returned to the cusp of power with a clear mandate, to focus on the grave national problems that confront his unstable country. The party of the one-time political exile, who was toppled by the military in 1999, won the most seats in the National Assembly by sweeping a majority in his home base of the Punjab, the country's most developed province.

Newspaper editor Rashed Rahman says the biggest challenge for Sharif, a wealthy businessman, will be reviving an economy beset by a severe shortage of energy.

RASHED RAHMAN: It has ruined the economy and brought industry and commerce to its knees. Clearly, no investment is coming in, domestic or foreign. But, interestingly, if you don't deal with terrorism, you can't improve the economy. If you don't deal with law and order, you can't improve the economy, because no investor is going to risk his capital in a situation where safety of life and limb cannot be guaranteed.

MCCARTHY: In foreign policy, Nawaz Sharif - the presumptive Pakistani prime minister - is expected to reach out to India, whose Prime Minister Monmohan Singh has congratulated Sharif and invited him to New Delhi. The two nuclear powers of India and Pakistan have an innate suspicion of one another. Pakistan's entrenched militants, who have attacked India, bedevil advancements in their relations.

Sharif's Punjab province is home to many fundamentalist groups, whom he has been careful not to alienate. In fact, as a center-right conservative, Sharif is often described as having a soft corner for the militants. Rahman says his ambiguous position is the contradiction at the heart of the issue.

RAHMAN: If you have a soft corner, will you be able to manage? Will you be able to control it? Will you be able to tackle it? Don't forget the casualties the Taliban has inflicted on us - over 5,000 security personnel, 40,000 civilians, and ongoing and counting as we speak. So, you know, it's not something you can just wish away. It's not something that you can casually tackle. It's a very serious issue, and I think he will be tested on this one.

(APPLAUSE)

MCCARTHY: Nawaz addressed supporters Saturday night and invited all parties to sit together, following an election in which voters defied militant threats and went to the polls in huge numbers. Election officials estimated that 60 percent of the country's 86 million voters turned out.

(APPLAUSE)

MCCARTHY: Celebrations and boisterous street parties erupted, signaling the vitality of Pakistani politics. Going into the election, the momentum seemed to have been on the side of Imran Khan. The popular former cricket player had electrified supporters and charged the youth with a new political awareness. His party did not sweep in the tsunami he predicted, but analysts said he could derive satisfaction from a strong showing.

The Pakistan People's Party was the big loser. Voters turned them out after five years of governance marked by malfeasance and charges of graft. Militant threats had kept the PPP from campaigning, and violence disrupted Pakistan's fragile democracy.

Dozens were killed in bombings on election day in Karachi, where disgruntled voters took to the streets with allegations of vote-rigging. The Election Commission admitted that it was unable to run a transparent election in the sprawling port city and ordered re-elections in several districts. But they are not likely to upset Nawaz Sharif's victory.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Lahore.

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