The battleground between Sharif and Khan was in Pakistan’s most populous province, Punjab, where both parties appealed to urban middle class voters. The province contains nearly half of the 272 directly-elected seats in the national assembly.
The outgoing Pakistan People’s Party was expected to fare poorly in the election because of unhappiness with its performance leading the last government. The party, which rose to power in 2008 in part by widespread sympathy after the death of party leader Benazir Bhutto, has carried out what many called a lackluster campaign.
Their effort has been hampered by threats of Taliban violence and a lack of high-profile figures to rally the party. Benazir Bhutto’s son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, is officially the party chairman and had been expected to play a high-profile role in the election. But he has appeared at few election events, and was out of the country Saturday.
The election commission said it was investigating reports of a lack of polling staff and materials, and threats to election commission staff in some areas of the southern city of Karachi.
The election winner inherits a country struggling on a number of fronts. Pakistanis suffer from rolling blackouts that can be as long as 18 hours a day as well as a stuttering economy. The country is also battling Taliban militants who want to overthrow the government, while on the western border there are fears that a U.S. military departure from Afghanistan will send violence spilling over into Pakistan.
Sharif has favored negotiations with militants in the country’s tribal areas. That could put him at odds with the country’s powerful military. While Pakistan has been under civilian rule for the last five years, the military still is considered the country’s most powerful institution and usually makes the major decisions when it comes to militancy or foreign policy issues such as Afghanistan or India.
In what appeared to be a show of support for democracy in Pakistan, the country’s most powerful military officer, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, went to the voting booth himself instead of mailing in his ballot. His gesture was broadcast live of local TV.