LAHORE, PAKISTAN — The euphoria was palpable. In Lahore, crowds of cheering supporters of the next prime minister were out in force as news of his party's victory trickled in.
In the hometown of Nawaz Sharif - whose party won a majority in the Feb. 3 elections - groups of motorcycle-riding supporters careened through the city streets shouting "Long live Nawaz Sharif," and "Muslim League is back in power."
But the post-election festivities do not extend beyond Pakistan's second-largest city. With most results in, the election has left unanswered questions and many here worry that the political instability that has dogged the country since its inception will continue.
With voter turnout at below 30 percent - the lowest ever in the country's 50-year history - officials worry about the legitimacy of the next government. "The victory may be clear but the low turnout will raise questions over its legitimacy," says one federal official in Islamabad, the capital.
It is also unclear what the next step will be for former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto - whose Pakistan People's Party (PPP) was delivered a crushing defeat. Ms. Bhutto has alleged election fraud and vowed to reject the results if she lost. Her government was dismissed in November by President Farooq Leghari on charges of corruption, economic mismanagement, and extra-judicial killings by the police in a clamp down in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city.
For Mr. Sharif, a businessman turned politician who heads the Pakistan Muslim League (PML), the going will not be easy. He will have to tread carefully in his relations with President Leghari and the country's powerful military establishment. The president last month ordered the creation of a new body known as the Council for Defense and National Security. The council brings together senior ministers and top generals, and gives the military its first formal say in government affairs.
The council has raised suspicions because Pakistan had previously been ruled by the military for almost 24 years. Critics say the council will override parliament in important affairs and further increase the role of the armed forces in civilian decisionmaking.
Despite such difficulties, Sharif's election is expected to boost the country's battered business confidence. His background as a scion of one of Pakistan's most important business families and his economic policies during his last term as prime minister in 1990-93 has made him widely popular among businessmen. He is credited with the economic reforms of the early '90s that for the first time permitted investors to set up large factories without seeking official permission and ordinary Pakistanis to open up foreign-currency accounts at local banks.
After claiming victory, Sharif promised "bold reforms" of the economy and extended an olive branch to Bhutto. "We will not indulge in any victimization toward the PPP. We will try to establish a good rapport," he told reporters Feb. 4. (At press time, the PML had won 127 seats in the 217-seat lower house, and the PPP 17.)
But analysts wonder whether Sharif can move the country away from its legacy of bitter exchanges between rivals. The PPP's decision to reject the results was the first sign that Bhutto was setting the stage for a confrontation. "[She] will try to exploit the low turnout to say that these elections carry no legitimacy," says a senior government official in Lahore, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "She will try to provoke the new government by going for options such as a series of street protests so that she appears to look like a martyr figure," he adds.