Supporters of Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) celebrate election results in front of a party office late on May 11, 2013, in Lahore, Pakistan. Millions of Pakistanis cast their votes in parliamentary elections. It is the first time in the country's history that an elected government will hand over power to another elected government. Daniel Berehulak, Getty Images
KARACHI, Pakistan - Despite protests over vote-rigging Sunday, many heralded Pakistan's election as a historic democratic exercise in a country known for its military takeovers.
"It would be stupidity to have expected a 100% free and fair (election), but we are leaps and bounds ahead of what came before," said 30-year-old Hareem Sumbul, who worked at a Karachi polling station.
Although counting was still be taking place, early returns Sunday showed that former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) had taken an overwhelming lead in a landmark election marred by violence Saturday, including a string of attacks that killed dozens.
Defying earlier estimates that he may have to form a coalition with the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party (PTI), led by the charismatic former cricket star Imran Khan, Sharif - who declared victory Saturday evening - appears to have eked out enough of the vote to win outright.
Sharif, 63, has twice served as the country's leader but was toppled in a military coup in 1999. He spent years in exile before returning to the country in 2007.
While Sharif has tried to bill himself as the candidate of experience, Khan appealed to voters' desire for change and many praised the former sportsman for bringing out young voters and producing a 60% turnout, topping the 44% turnout of the previous election in 2008.
"As far as the elections are concerned, the good bit was the turnout and the PTI gets credit for that," Sumbul said.
With the PML-N and the PTI taking much of the vote, the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) looked set to suffer a huge defeat coming in third. Politicians in the party, which came to power in 2007 on a wave of sympathy after the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, have widely been accused of corruption.
Despite some allegations of election irregularities, 49-year-old vice chancellor of the Khadim Ali Shah Bukhari Institute of Technology, Hasan Amir said he did not think the vote had been rigged.
"It's the margins that he's won by that make that clear," he said. "Nawaz Sharif has worked hard in the last five years to deliver to the poor people. Imran has lost because he has not been able to connect to the average person."
At least 29 people were killed Saturday in attacks that included a bombing at the Awami National Party (ANP) in the port city of Karachi and an attack outside a polling station in the town of Sorab in the southwestern province of Baluchistan.
Despite more than 150 people being killed in the run-up to the election, people turned out to vote in droves in an effort to push for a democratic transition to a new government - the first in the country's 66-year history.
Simbal Khan, a Pakistan scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington D.C., and director of the Afghanistan and Central Asia at the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad, said she's not surprised by the enthusiasm of young voters in the face of violent acts of terrorism.
"There is this whole energy that wasn't there before," Khan said. "What I am getting from a lot of young people is, 'We're here. We're not going to be intimidated by this.' "
Hasna Cheema, who works for a women's shelter in Lahore, said the election shifted voting dynamics in the country.
"Usually how people vote is, if your husband is voting for one party then I will vote for that party. Then you vote the clan you belong to, the tribe, your ethnicity," she said.
This time, though, she said people voted based on the issues.
While voters said they hoped for change, analysts said the violence and serious problems facing the country were unlikely to come to an end after the election.
"It is fantastic that Pakistan has managed for the first time (to) have achieved a democratic transition," said Siegried Wolf, a political scientist at the University of Heidelberg. "But if the fight against the Taliban is to be fought effectively, the government may not be able to focus on other important social and economic problems. There are many, including constant power cuts and unemployment, which could lead to violent protests over the long term."
While campaigning, Sharif said he planned to end Pakistan's involvement in the U.S.-led war on terror - leaving some with fears that it could allow militants a greater grip on parts of the troubled country.
However, Athar Hussain, director of the Asia Research Center at the London School of Economics, said Sharif would still be limited in his power in spite of the win.
"The Sharif government may have some problems with the army," he said. "The army will still remain one of the most powerful forces in Pakistan, so I think there are limits in how far the government can go against the wishes of the army. They just don't have the power to do so."
The prime minister will face other challenges apart from those related to terrorism, Hussain said, including youth unemployment and a downturn in the economy - something that could create uprisings and protests down the road.
"There is a problem of growing inequality, and I think that a combination of youth unemployment and growing inequality is potentially an explosive one," Hussain said.
Still, despite the issues ahead for Pakistan's new government and the violence surrounding the elections, voters said it was important they turned out to vote.
"If we didn't come out, this could've been the last elections (to be held)," said Danish Bhatti, 28, a banker in Karachi.
(Copyright © 2013 USA TODAY)