By Rashid Khattak
Despite threats of violence by Taliban insurgents, Pakistani turnout for Saturday's elections was at 60 percent, with voters clearly signaling their confidence in the country's democratic process.
The party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was ousted in a military coup in 1999 and now leads the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, has won a majority of seats in the National Assembly.
Now comes the difficult part. The country is plagued by terrorism, inflation, an energy crisis, and a weak economy and joblessness.
The next government, soon after its formation at the end of this month, will have to present the annual budget in June, and the issue of U.S. drone attacks will have to be addressed. During the campaign, Sharif vowed to stop the strikes. It is also widely believed that Sharif's performance will depend on his relationship with the army.
Many Pakistanis are optimistic that the next government will be able to resolve these issues amicably.
"Nawaz is a lucky leader," said Pakistani journalist Mehmood Jan Babar. "He has the will and a team of colleagues to tackle these issues."
He said that it would not be difficult for Sharif to resolve the issue of terrorism, as he is one of the three political leaders whom the Taliban seem willing to deal with. "Taliban have never threatened or targeted him," he added.
Babar said Sharif had already announced that he would talk with the Taliban about restoring peace, as well as end drone attacks, in the tribal areas.
"I think he will also have no problem in dealing with America, as they have a common friend, and that's Saudi Arabia," Babar said, adding that the Saudis could help strengthen ties between Pakistan and the United States.
Sharif has also invited Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to his oath-taking ceremony on June 2. The gesture is a sign that he wants to normalize ties with the neighboring country, which is considered an archrival by Pakistan's security establishment.
"He has almost announced his foreign policy by inviting the Indian prime minister to the oath-taking ceremony and speaking about holding talks with the U.S. to stop drone attacks," said Asif Bashir Chaudhry, a TV journalist who covers government and politics in Pakistan.
Chaudhry also believes that, as an industrialist, Sharif should be able to address Pakistan's shortages of electricity and natural gas. Sharif has already received a boost from the All Pakistan CNG Association, an organization of filling-station owners, who say he will steer the country out of the current mess.
Chaudhry also expects Sharif to pursue a gas-pipeline project with Iran, despite concerns in Washington about the effort. But Pakistan's help with the "safe exit of NATO forces from Afghanistan will be his bargaining card to execute the gas-supply project," he said.
Above all, Sharif has made clear, his top priority will be reviving Pakistan's economy.
"Improve the economy and all issues will be resolved," he recently said in an interview. "There will be no terrorism, extremism, lawlessness, joblessness, poverty, and ignorance in the country if the economy is strengthened."
Like Sharif, many Pakistanis are optimistic that the country can improve under the new government, but they understand the realities. They hope for progress, but don't expect Pakistan to be turned into a paradise in the next five years.