ISLAMABAD - Former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif declared victory after 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.
The chief of Pakistan's election commission, Fakhruddin Ebrahim, said turnout was near 60 percent of registered voters, the highest since the 1970 election.
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.
Sharif was toppled in a military coup by then-army chief Gen. Pervez Musharraf in 1999 and spent years in exile.
Sharif faced a strong challenge from Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party. The winner of the 1992 cricket World Cup tapped into the frustrations of many Pakistani youths fed up with the country's traditional politicians.