ISLAMABAD -- Former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's overwhelming victory in parliamentary elections over the weekend returns to power a seasoned politician who historically has had rocky relations with Pakistan's powerful military and is viewed by many as soft on militants and extremist groups.
The expected showdown between Mr. Sharif, 63, and former cricket star Imran Khan never really materialized, as Mr. Sharif swept the elections and put himself in a position to become prime minister for the third time.
With much of the vote counted, unofficial results had Mr. Sharif's party winning at least 46 percent of the seats in the National Assembly, according to Pakistani media projections. It was still unclear whether the final tally would give him an outright majority of seats, but his clear margin of victory meant he would easily be able to bring into his fold the handful of independent lawmakers and winning candidates from the country's religious parties to form a government.
Trailing far behind Mr. Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N Party were Mr. Khan's Movement for Justice Party with a projected 11 percent of parliament seats, and President Asif Ali Zardari's outgoing Pakistan People's Party, with nearly 12 percent. Official results were not expected until later this week.
A former steel baron and one of Pakistan's wealthiest men, Mr. Sharif was prime minister from 1990 to 1993 and again from 1997 to 1999, until the army chief at the time, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, ousted him. Mr. Sharif lived in exile in Saudi Arabia until 2007, when he returned to Pakistan. His party won the Punjab provincial assembly elections in 2008 and won enough seats in parliament to become the main rival to Mr. Zardari's PPP.
Mr. Sharif has always had a difficult relationship with Pakistan's military, which has run the country for more than half of its 65-year history and still holds sway over major foreign policy matters, such as Islamabad's ties with the U.S., Afghanistan and India. Many in Pakistan criticize him for what they say is his dangerous tolerance of extremist groups, including Sunni sectarian outfits that continue to wage a campaign of violence against the country's Shiite minority.
He also has proposed dialogue with the Pakistani Taliban, the country's homegrown insurgency, a position that is likely to put him at odds with the military, which sees the Taliban as one of Pakistan's most pressing threats.
During the campaign, Mr. Sharif also promised to review Pakistan's relations with the U.S. and perhaps pull back on the country's collaboration with America in battling Islamist militants.
Mr. Khan, 60, was regarded by most analysts to be Mr. Sharif's most formidable challenger. The charismatic former cricketer was able to amass widespread support from middle class voters in Pakistan's larger cities, particularly younger Pakistanis. But he was unable to win much support in rural Punjab, where Mr. Sharif has long-standing ties with clan-based societies, or in the province's business community, which has always had a good relationship with the former prime minister.