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Sharif to hold Pakistan's top job for third time as voters defy Taliban threats

Nawaz Sharif looks to have secured an astonishing political comeback in Pakistan's general election -- 14 years after he was toppled in a military coup, jailed and then exiled. John Irvine of the U.K.'s ITV News reports from Pakistan.

LAHORE, Pakistan - Center-right Pakistani politician Nawaz Sharif was set to return as his country's prime minister on Monday - his third time in the job - after voters defied deadly Taliban attacks to cast their ballots in record numbers. 

Sharif, who campaigned on restoring Pakistan’s weak economy, was in overnight meetings to form a new government, according to Sen. Pervez Rashid, a spokesman for Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party.

Officials said turnout was over 60 percent, a record in a country where historically less than half of registered voters cast their ballots, according to the Election Commission of Pakistan, the national body tasked with holding elections.  

The election marked another watershed -- it was the first time in the country's 65-year history that a legislature has completed its term, paving the way for the possibility of a peaceful transition of power from one civilian government to the next.

While final election results had not been announced, preliminary results reported on local media appeared to give 63-year-old Sharif a resounding victory.

Pakistanis will elect a new leader on Saturday under the shadow of the Taliban. NBC's Waj Khan reports from Lahore.

Sharif defeated telegenic former cricketer Imran Khan’s Movement for Justice party (PTI), who had been campaigning against older, more powerful parties like Sharif’s.  Khan was in a close fight for second place with the Pakistan People’s Party of president Asif Ali Zardari, which just ended its often-criticized rule in Pakistan after five years.

Khan, who was seriously injured in a fall on the eve of the elections, swore from his hospital bed that his party will form a strong opposition, while investigating alleged rigging.

Nevertheless, Fakhruddin Ebrahim, the country's chief election commissioner, congratulated the country on television for holding "historic and free" elections, though he did admit that there were irregularities in Karachi, Pakistan's largest and most violent city.

Protesters from different parties gathered in moderate numbers across the country, demanding an investigation by the election officials against poll rigging.  The Election Commission, in response, called a meeting for investigation rigging allegations for later Monday. 

Still, the mood in Pakistan seems upbeat, as the Karachi Stock Exchange just crossed record levels and breached the 20,000 point barrier.

Conciliatory tone
Sharif struck a conciliatory tone as results rolled in over the weekend.

"I appeal to all to come sit with me at the table so that this nation can get rid of this curse of power cuts, inflation and unemployment," Sharif said according to The Associated Press.

Protesters call for a new election citing fraud after their candidate Imran Khan loses in his run for prime minister. NBCNews.com's Dara Brown reports.

Sharif and his government will have their work cut out for them.  Pakistan suffers from a growing energy crisis, with some areas experiencing power outages for up to 18 hours a day. That has seriously hurt the economy, pushing growth below 4 percent a year.

Pakistan needs a growth rate of twice that to provide jobs for its expanding population of 180 million. They will also have to cope with spiraling violence.

The build up to the polls saw over a 100 people killed in militant attacks, and of Sharif's most urgent problems will be what to do about violent Islamic extremism throughout his country.  His party has been accused of being soft on radicals after not cracking down on violent groups in its stronghold of Punjab province.

The United States has pushed Pakistan for years to take stronger action against fighters whose who attack American troops across the border in Afghanistan.

Muhammed Muheisen / AP

Images of daily life, political pursuits, religious rites and deadly violence.

Once considered a protege of the country's powerful army, Sharif served two non-consecutive terms as prime minister in the 1990s before his relationship with the military deteriorated. He was ousted in a coup and replaced by General Pervez Musharraf in 1999, and exiled to Saudi Arabia.

Known to be a religious conservative personally, Sharif's first term in office was marked by efforts to increase the role of Islam in government, including trying to introduce Shariah law through parliament.

Pakistan also became a nuclear state during his second term in office. Sharif also built a reputation for launching large-scale, economic initiatives to spur development, including power, transportation, and technology projects.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.