ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Nawaz Sharif, who twice served as Pakistan's prime minister in the 1990s, has decisively garnered enough seats in Parliament to give him an unprecedented third term in the post, analysts said Sunday, as election results continued to pile up in favor of the industrialist's center-right party.
"He will not have any problem in forming the new government; that is very clear," said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political expert in Lahore, long the stronghold of Sharif's party, the Pakistan Muslim League-N.
Sharif claimed victory Saturday night after seeing enough of a balloting trend to convince him that he had sealed a remarkable political comeback 14 years after being toppled in a bloodless coup, imprisoned, and sent into exile.
Experts widely agreed that his candidates for Parliament were poised to seize at least 130 seats based on still-incomplete results Sunday, experts said.
That number put the PML-N close to a required simple majority of 272 directly elected assembly seats, and in coming days Sharif is expected to easily win the allegiance of independent candidates and small parties to put him over the top.
Consigned to the opposition but still expected to be a potent force will be Imran Khan, the former cricket hero whose Movement for Justice picked up enough votes to make it the nation's second most popular party, political experts said.
Khan, who galvanized young voters with a relentless anticorruption message and a call for change, thanked them for their support Sunday. "I forgot the pain of defeat when I saw the enthusiasm of the youth of this country," Khan said in a video message from his hospital bed, where he is recovering after last week while campaigning in Lahore.
The election was widely hailed as a landmark of democratic progress: One elected government succeeded in completing a full term and prepared to hand off power to another elected government, a first in Pakistan's history.
The often turbulent nuclear-armed state has seen long periods of military rule since its founding in 1947. But this time, the powerful Pakistani army stood aside except to provide beefed-up security as millions of voters turned out in defiance of Pakistani Taliban threats to unleash suicide bombers at polling stations.
"Pakistan should now be treated as, if not a fully democratic country, then at least a reasonably democratic country," said military affairs commentator Talat Masood, a retired three-star general.
Sharif, 63, is a relatively known quantity in Washington, having interacted with two presidential administrations when he was prime minister from 1990 to 1993 and from 1997 to 1999.
He is expected to seek friendly relations with the United States, which for decades has been Pakistan's principal financial patron but which remains suspicious of Pakistani motives in Afghanistan.
Many U.S. officials assert that Islamabad deliberately protects Taliban and other militants that battle U.S.-backed NATO troops in Afghanistan.
President Obama issued a statement Sunday congratulating the Pakistani people on the "successful completion" of the election.
"The United States stands with all Pakistanis in welcoming this historic peaceful and transparent transfer of civilian power," Obama said in the statement.
The clear loser at the polls was the incumbent PPP, which will probably end up with the same number of seats as Khan's party - about 30. The PPP's five-year term was marred by economic crisis and energy shortages.