Pakistan’s Sharif declares election victory

Pakistani women line up to enter a polling station and cast their ballots, on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan, Saturday, May 11, 2013. Pakistanis streamed to the polls Saturday to vote in a historic election pitting a cricket star-turned-politician against an unpopular incumbent and a two-time prime minister, but twin bombings killing nine people and wounding dozens underlined the dangers voters face. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)
Pakistani women line up to enter a polling station and cast their ballots, on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan, Saturday, May 11, 2013. Pakistanis streamed to the polls Saturday to vote in a historic election pitting a cricket star-turned-politician against an unpopular incumbent and a two-time prime minister, but twin bombings killing nine people and wounding dozens underlined the dangers voters face. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif declared victory following a historic election marred by violence Saturday, as unofficial partial vote counts showed his party with an overwhelming lead.

If his victory is confirmed, it would be a remarkable comeback for the 63-year-old Sharif, who has twice served as the country’s premier but was toppled in a military coup in 1999. He spent years in exile before returning to the country in 2007. His 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 unofficial partial vote counts announced by local Pakistan state TV.

The results indicated Sharif’s party has an overwhelming lead, but would fall short of winning a majority of the 272 directly elected national assembly seats, meaning 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.

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 the eastern city of 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 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 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.