The twice and future prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, garners big Pakistan vote

As counting continues in Pakistan's historic elections, Mr. Sharif's party has pulled away from its two main rivals. But the process of building a coalition will take time. 

K.M. Chaudary/AP
Nawaz Sharif celebrates as early vote counts show his party with a commanding lead in the polls.

It took scores of terrorist attacks, months of speculation and campaigning, but the verdict is in: Twice-elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is set to win a third term after his party won a majority in the country’s parliamentary elections.

Pakistan went to the polls Saturday to elect candidates for the lower house of Parliament and four provincial assemblies. Mr. Sharif’s party, the center-right Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) – is projected to win more than 120 seats, with the ruling center-left Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) trailing by a huge margin. Despite making gains and galvanizing new voters to take part, a national upset wasn't in the cards for former cricket-star Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). 

But Sharif isn’t going to take over power tomorrow – or even next week. There’s a lengthy process ahead of forming a coalition.

The victorious Sharif told supporters on Saturday night that he would like an “absolute majority” and “not have to ask for votes” but was open to talking to every party. He has often said that he is open to a coalition, but has warned that a “split mandate” is not what Pakistan needs given the scale of the country's challenges. 

Pakistan’s lower house of Parliament – the main legislative body – comprises 342 seats, of which 272 were up for grabs in the election. Polls for several seats were suspended after the deaths of candidates. Polling may also be conducted again for one seat in Karachi, which was marred by reports of electoral fraud and delays. The other 70 seats, "reserved" for women and non-Muslims, are indirectly elected based on the number of seats won by their parties. The party that reaches a majority with 172 seats forms the next government at the federal level. (Editor's note: The original story incorrectly stated the number of reserved seats.)

To reach the magic 172, Sharif will now have to form alliances, even if these are with parties that his center-right party is ideologically opposed to. So while the dust of the elections has settled and those killed in preelection violence are mourned, a storm will be kicked up in Lahore, where the PML-N is headquartered.

The most probable choices would appear to be the Pakistan Muslim League-Functional (PML-F), a nationalist party from the Sindh Province, and political parties from Balochistan and Sindh, such as the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). These negotiations will take time – and will need to be conciliatory in tone, something Sharif, for one, has displayed in the years preceding his party’s victory. The MQM has had a contentious relationship with Sharif in the past, and a congratulatory statement by MQM’s London-exiled chief Altaf Hussain took a dig at the PML-N as a "representative party of Punjab," as opposed to a party with national standing.

Role for America?

Leaked diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks showed that after the last national elections in 2008, several parties discussed their options for coalitions with American diplomats. But in a report released prior to the May 11 elections, the Center for American Progress think tank noted that the “goal of U.S. policy should be to work with – not attempt to control – Pakistan’s internal political processes. Only Pakistanis themselves are capable of establishing a more stable, democratic system capable of balancing diverse interest groups and effectively addressing the country’s challenges.”

Elections for some seats in the upper house of Parliament, the Senate, are next scheduled for 2015. These elections are indirect, with senators voted in by members of the four provincial assemblies. The PPP currently has a majority in the Senate, which provides the party with the opportunity to effectively block legislation if it is in the opposition in the National Assembly.

While the makeup of provincial governments isn’t necessarily dictated by who won a majority in the National Assembly, it often has a spillover effect. The PPP and the PTI are projected to gain a majority in the Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces respectively, while the PML-N would retain its Punjab stronghold and could form a government with Balochistan’s nationalist political parties in that province.

Newly elected members of the National Assembly, Pakistan’s lower house of Parliament, will elect a speaker and a deputy speaker, after which the assembly will elect a "leader of the house" – the prime minister – and an opposition leader. The prime minister will be sworn in by President Asif Ali Zardari, who is the dynastic head of the PPP, and a cabinet will be picked made up of senators and newly elected legislators. A presidential election is due later this year.

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