LAHORE, Pakistan (AP) -- Pakistan's former prime minister Nawaz Sharif looked set Sunday to return to power for a third term, with an overwhelming election tally that just weeks ago seemed out of reach for a man who had been ousted by a coup and was exiled abroad before clawing his way back as an opposition leader.
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As unofficial returns continued to roll in Sunday morning, state TV estimates did not show whether Sharif would attain the majority needed to govern outright or if he would need to form a coalition government.
But the margin of victory over the closest competitors - a party headed by former cricket star Imran Khan and the outgoing Pakistan People's Party - gave his party a clear mandate to guide the country of 180-million over the next five years.
Supporters danced in the streets overnight in his hometown of Lahore, Pakistan's second largest city and the provincial capital of Punjab province.
Even if he were to form a coalition government, the seat projections indicated that his party, the Pakistan Muslim League-N, would have a much stronger grip on power than its predecessor.
The return to the seat of power in the capital of Islamabad marks a triumph for the 63-year-old Sharif.
He served as prime minister twice during the nineties, including overseeing Pakistan's first nuclear weapon test, but was ousted in a coup in 1999 by former chief of the army, Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
Sharif went into exile in Saudi Arabia and only returned to Pakistan in 2007. Even then, he was forced to sit on the sidelines as his party contested parliamentary elections after a court disqualified him from running. He had a prior criminal conviction for terrorism and hijacking stemming from Musharraf's coup - Sharif was accused at the time of denying the general's plane permission to land.
The Supreme Court overturned the conviction in 2009.
Over the last five years, Sharif put steady pressure on the PPP-led government, but wary of army interference, never enough to threaten its hold on power. This attitude helped enable parliament to complete its term and transfer power in democratic elections for the first time since the country was founded in 1947.
Sharif now faces the monumental task of governing a country with rising inflation, rolling blackouts, and a powerful Taliban insurgency.
Sharif's relationship with the Pakistani military will be closely watched for signs of a power struggle like the one that precipitated his 1999 ouster. Critics also worry that the PML-N government that has run Punjab province for the last five years has been too tolerant of extremist groups in the province.