Islamabad - Millions of Pakistanis braved threats from militants and voted Saturday in national elections that marked the country's first democratic transfer of governance and appeared to put former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on track for a potential return to power.
The elections change Pakistan's political landscape and probably will sideline the Pakistan People's Party, which has ruled the country for five years. But the results are not expected to lead to any major shift in U.S.-Pakistan relations because the country's powerful military still holds sway over crucial issues such as Pakistan's role in peace talks with insurgents in Afghanistan and the country's relationship with its nuclear archrival, India.
Nevertheless, the elections carried heavy symbolic value, bringing the first democratic transition of one civilian government to another. Through coups and political ousters, the country's powerful military has ruled for more than half of Pakistan's 65-year existence.
The new national assembly that comes out of Saturday's elections has the responsibility of picking a new prime minister and charting a course to lead the country out of economic stagnancy and militancy that has killed thousands in recent years.
Members of the newly formed parliament and the provincial assemblies will also decide whether to select a new president or retain incumbent Asif Ali Zardari, an unlikely scenario if his Pakistan People's Party has performed poorly in the national polls. Zardari's term ends in September.
Official results were not expected to be ready until Sunday. However, unofficial tallies and media projections indicated that, though Sharif's PML-N Party did not appear to have won a clear majority of parliament seats, it handily outpaced Zardari's party and the Movement for Justice party led by one-time cricket star Imran Khan. Without a majority, Sharif would need to craft an alliance with other parties to take control of the parliament.
But Sharif's strong showing suggested that he was positioned to lead a new coalition government. In a victory speech given to supporters in the eastern city of Lahore as his lead in the national election became apparent, he expressed a desire to work with all parties to solve the country's problems.
Sharif told his supporters that "we are now convinced PML-N is the leading party. Our agenda will be to change the destiny of this nation."
Asad Umar, a top adviser to Khan, said his party conceded defeat. "I congratulate PML-N on this victory. It looks like they are emerging as the leading party."
The campaign evolved into a two-way race between Khan, who in previous elections had failed to muster any significant backing, and Sharif. This time, however, Khan was transformed into a dominant political force through a campaign that relied heavily on young, urban middle-class voters, social media savvy and a furious schedule of rallies attended by legions of backers.
His 15-foot fall last week as he tried to reach a rally stage only engendered sympathy. Although three cracked vertebrae and a broken rib kept him from making a final campaign appearance at a rally Thursday in Islamabad, 35,000 followers nevertheless showed up to hear him speak from his hospital room via video link.
Pakistan's other major political force, the Pakistan People's Party, was forced by a variety of factors to run a subdued, relatively leaderless campaign. Zardari was kept from the campaign trail by court rulings that barred him from politicking while serving in the presidency. His 24-year-old son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, was supposed to help lead the campaign but had to stay away because of threats against his life from militants.
Zardari's party was further burdened by widespread disappointment and frustration with his administration's failure to tackle crippling power shortages, economic stagnancy and terrorism that plagued the country during his five-year term. According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, 83% of Pakistanis expressed an unfavorable opinion of Zardari.
Although the election has been hailed as a milestone in Pakistan's democracy, it also has been the country's bloodiest. During the campaign, more than 100 candidates and activists were killed in bombings and ambushes that occurred almost daily.
The country's homegrown insurgency, the Pakistani Taliban, focused its attacks on three liberal, secular parties: Zardari's PPP, northwest Pakistan's Awami National Party and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, which governs Karachi, the country's largest city. During the waning days of the campaign, Taliban insurgents expanded their hit list to include rallies held by Islamist hard-line parties led by clerics with historical ties to the Taliban movement.
The violence was capped by the abduction Thursday of former Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani's 26-year-old son, Ali Haider Gilani, in the southern city of Multan. The younger Gilani is a PPP candidate for a Punjab provincial assembly seat. No one has claimed responsibility for his kidnapping.
Left relatively untouched were the campaigns led by Sharif and Khan, both of whom have espoused dialogue with militants rather than military action.
Faced with threats from the Pakistani Taliban that it would use teams of suicide bombers to derail the elections, the government deployed 600,000 security personnel at the country's 73,000 polling stations. The Pakistani military said the security contingent would include 75,000 army soldiers.
Voting proceeded calmly through most of the day, but there were bombings and other attacks in the country's south and northwest that killed at least two dozen people.
Militants detonated a bomb outside a polling station in Peshawar, killing a child and injuring seven people, police said. In the town of Naseerabad in the southwest province of Baluchistan, gunmen attacked an independent candidate's convoy, killing at least 14 people.
In Karachi, a bomb went off outside a campaign office of the Awami National Party, killing 10 people and injuring 40. ANP is a liberal Pashtun-dominated party that has governed the volatile northwest province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa for five years and has a presence in Karachi, home to a large enclave of Pashtuns. Police were still investigating how the bomb attack was carried out.
Despite threats from the Taliban, turnout was robust across the country. Chief Election Commissioner Fakhruddin Ibrahim estimated it at 60 percent, well above the 2008 election turnout of 44 percent.
In the capital, Islamabad, voters said they refused to be intimidated by warnings from militants and relished the chance to have their say in historic elections.
"I was so excited about voting that I couldn't sleep. I've been up since 4 a.m.," said Faiza Shahid, 52, who voted for Khan's Movement for Justice. "I really hope Imran Khan wins. We really need change. We are sick and tired of the people ruling us, and sick of the corruption."
Turnout appeared to be influenced by an influx of young voters into the electorate. A survey this spring by the British Council found that 25 million of Pakistan's 86 million registered voters are between the ages of 18 and 29, and that more than half of those voters - about 13 million - would be going to the polls for the first time.
The youth vote buoyed the campaign crafted by Khan, 60, who hammered away at the message that he represented a radically different style of governance from the policies of Zardari and Sharif, both of whom have had turns running the country. He tapped into the intense anti-U.S. sentiment pervading the country, pledging to detach Pakistan from its reliance on American aid and from Washington's battle against militants in the region.
He also promised to end corruption within 90 days of taking office, a pledge that most analysts scoffed at, but one that resonated with millions of Pakistanis.
Sharif, whose PML-N party has governed Punjab, the country's wealthiest and most populous province, also vowed to distance Pakistan from Washington. Analysts, however, said they expected the former prime minister to take a more pragmatic approach to U.S.-Pakistan relations. Moreover, Pakistan's relationship with the U.S. remains the domain of the powerful military, led by army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, a dynamic not likely to change under a new civilian government in Islamabad.
"When you talk about U.S.-Pakistan relations, these are issues that ultimately come within the purview of the military," Michael Kugelman, a foreign affairs analyst at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center, said during a recent briefing. "And the military is not going anywhere."