Islamabad (AsiaNews) - Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), won Sunday's general elections for the National Assembly. Voting also took place in the country's four provincial assemblies (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab, Sindh and Baluchistan). As the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) looks into allegations of fraud and irregularities, some political leaders and their supporters are in the streets to challenge the results after images of alleged vote rigging were posted on the net. Meanwhile, many leading lawmakers have gone down to defeat. However, despite accusations and allegations, by throwing their support behind Sharif's party, voters have spoken loud and clear, said Paul Bhatti, a leading Catholic candidate for the Pakistan People's Party (PPP).
Pending an official announcement, Sharif has already received the congratulations of some world leaders, including US President Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who looks forward to a close cooperation with the new government in Pakistan.
For the PML-N leader, this would be a third stint at the post of prime minister of Pakistan, following his overthrow in a military coup in the late 1990s.
His party is expected to win about 130 seats in the National Assembly and should reach 137 seats to form a majority government with the support of smaller parties. However, the PML-N's success raises concerns and fears among religious minorities, given its close relationship with the most radical and Islamist groups in the country.
Former cricket champion Imran Khan and his Pakistan Movement for Justice (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf or PTI) have taken second place. He has promised to provide genuine opposition. The outgoing ruling party, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) is third. Both the PTI and the PPP should have at least 30 seats in the National Assembly.
Later today, the Election Commission is expected to issue final results. Meantime, it announced that voter turnout had reached 60 per cent, up from 44 per cent in the last elections held in 2008.
Speaking to AsiaNews, Paul Bhatti admitted his party's defeat. He is the now former Minister for National Harmony in the outgoing PPP-dominated administration and brother of the late Shahbaz Bhatti, who was assassinated by Islamic fundamentalists in March 2011 when he was Minority Affairs Minister,.
"The loss of popular support was brutal," he said. "Sharif's party clearly won despite allegations of fraud, which might have occurred in some places. At every election, there are always claims of vote rigging. However, on this occasion, the outcome is clear."
For Bhatti, public resentment against the outgoing government over outstanding and unresolved problems, like security, energy and unemployment, explains the defeat. Terrorism and domestic violence are additional factors.
"Ours was a weak government," he said, "with many allies but little coherence. During the election campaign, we received threats. In the past, we also lost important leaders, like my brother Shahbaz, who was killed by extremists."
Despite everything, Paul Bhatti does not plan to leave the political scene. Instead, he intends to pursue new battles. He wants to promote his association, the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA), and fight for a different electoral system for minorities and their full integration into the community. Equally, he plans to fight abuses related to the blasphemy laws, and wants the new government to deal will three priorities, namely law and order, the economy and the energy crisis.
For Mgr Rufin Anbthony, bishop of Islamabad/Rawalpindi, "the elections are an example of a smooth transition of power from one government to another, according to the principles of democracy."
"We prayed for Pakistan," he said, "and it is nice to see Christian candidates take part in the vote, although they have not been very successful. What counts here though is being part of the system."
The prelate is hoping and praying that "the next government will be able to bring peace and harmony to the country."
Faisal Khattak, a Muslim political analyst, is not at all surprised at the results given the fact that those in power failed to address the problems of Pakistan's economy and society.
He is especially impressed by "the people of Karachi who have shown courage by standing up against the atrocities. This is a wave of change; the people have stood up for Pakistan," he said. (DS)
Jibran Khan contributed to the article.