Sharif’s Muslim League Leads in Landmark Pakistani Vote

Nawaz Sharif said his Pakistan Muslim League had won the most seats in a landmark election and would return to power, as state-run television and other media broadcast unofficial counts supporting his claim.

Sharif, 63, was winning 127 of 272 directly elected seats in the 342-member lower house of parliament, according to the tally by Pakistan Television. Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf emerged as a political force, leading in 34 seats. The Pakistan Peoples Party, led by President Asif Ali Zardari which headed the previous government, was ahead in 31 positions, a third of the seats it got in 2008. The Election Commission of Pakistan had released 25 results as of 2:45 p.m.

“It lies with the PML to form the government and this should not be delayed,” Khawaja Saad Rafique, a spokesman for Sharif’s party, told reporters. Parliament should also meet soon “as the federal budget is around the corner.”

Sharif’s mandate would enable him to pursue an agenda topped by fixing the country’s record energy crisis which sliced 2 percentage points off economic growth in the last financial year, and overhauling the management of loss-making state-owned companies. His party has vowed to seek agreement with rivals and the armed forces over curbing militancy that killed 151 people in election-related violence.

“For Sharif, it seems to be an easy sail,” Rashid Ahmed Khan, a professor of politics at the University of Sargodha, said by phone. ‘He can form a coalition government by joining hands with nationalists from smaller provinces. The biggest surprise is that Khan is emerging as a real political force.”

Talks Offer

A record third term for Sharif would cap a political comeback 14 years after he was forcibly removed by General Pervez Musharraf, who went on to rule the country for most of the next decade. In a reversal of fortunes, Musharraf spent polling day under house arrest in Islamabad, where he faces possible treason charges for a declaration of emergency powers toward the end of his rule.

“The results are still coming in but it is almost confirmed that the Pakistan Muslim League is the biggest party in elections,” Sharif, a two-time prime minister who was jailed and then exiled after being ousted by the army in 1999, said in an address to his supporters in Lahore late yesterday, offering to hold talks with his political rivals to help resolve Pakistan’s problems.

Over 60 percent of Pakistan’s 86 million registered voters cast ballots in a near record turnout, state-run radio quoted Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim, chief election commissioner, as saying. In 2008, 44 percent voted.

The election marked an unprecedented transfer of power between civilian governments, an achievement in a country ruled for half its history by the army. Zardari’s party celebrated in March as its coalition government became the first in Pakistan to complete its five-year term.

Khan ‘Surprise’

Zardari remains president until September, when members of the federal and local assemblies will re-elect him or vote for a successor.

To secure a majority in the federal parliament, Sharif can also reach out to independents, 27 of whom were expected to be elected, PTV reported.

“The results were very surprising,” said Nadeem Afzal Gondal, a leader of the Peoples Party, said in an interview on Geo TV. “The energy crisis went against us.”

Seventy parliamentary spots are reserved for women and religious minorities and will be filled in proportion to the parties’ final poll standing. Four of the 272 constituencies were not contested.

Assembly Votes

Khan, 60, who cut short his campaign May 7 after falling from a makeshift lift at a poll rally, based his campaign on ousting the established parties led by Sharif and Zardari, which he accused of presiding over corrupt and incompetent administrations. His appeal to young voters struck a chord with many while failing to deliver the “tsunami” Khan predicted.

If the unofficial count is confirmed, he has ended 15 years in the political wilderness and will now be a leading voice in the next parliament. His party may also be able to lead the provincial government in the violence-plagued Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa region in the northwest where he has pledged to negotiate with militants in the area bordering Afghanistan.

Sharif won in Punjab, while Khan, 60, was also elected.

‘Tiger Roars’

In elections to four regional assemblies, Sharif’s party secured 190 of 297 seats in its Punjab stronghold, Geo reported, citing unofficial figures. In Sindh, the Peoples Party was set to emerge as the biggest, with 66 lawmakers out of a total 130, it reported. Khan’s PTI, or Movement for Justice, won 31 of 99 seats in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, more than double those of the next biggest group, it said.

The Dawn newspaper summed up Sharif’s successes with a headline referring to his party’s symbol: “The Tiger Roars Again.”

Sharif has vowed to seek a consensus with opposition parties and the army if elected to counter militancy that has led to 40,000 deaths since 2001. Like Khan, he has said he’s open to talks with the Taliban.

The other immediate challenge the next government of the world’s second-most populous Muslim nation will face is repairing a shattered economy, something that might require agreement among political parties.

Dar Signal

The new administration will have to “reform the tax structure and raise revenue to manage the debt” that has crippled the power sector, said Raza Rumi, political analyst and director of policy and programs at the Islamabad-based think-tank Jinnah Institute. “This sort of program is not achievable without multi-party consensus.”

Under Zardari’s administration, growth in the $210 billion economy slumped to an average 3 percent as power cuts as long as 18 hours a day shut factories and terrorism deterred investment. The growth rate was less than half the annual pace of the previous five years.

The Karachi Stock Exchange’s 100-share index has surged 18 percent this year. Boosted by higher consumer spending, earnings of companies in the benchmark gauge rose 43 percent in the past 12 months, the most among 17 Asian equity indexes, data compiled by Bloomberg show.

Investors await the presentation of Pakistan’s annual budget, an event that normally takes place in June.

“I am sure Ishaq Dar is concentrating on the new budget,” PML spokesman Rafique said, in a possible signal Dar, who served as finance minister for six weeks in 2008, will resume charge of the portfolio.

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