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Former Pakistani leader returns to power

Apparent victory leaves questions about extremism

Supporters of the former prime minister and head of the Pakistan Muslim League-N party, Nawaz Sharif, celebrated.

Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

Supporters of the former prime minister and head of the Pakistan Muslim League-N party, Nawaz Sharif, celebrated.

LAHORE, Pakistan — Former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif looked poised Sunday to return to office with a resounding election victory — a mandate that could make it easier to tackle the country’s daunting problems, including growing power outages, weak economic growth, and shaky government finances.

Questions remain, however, about Sharif’s stance on another key issue: violent Islamic extremism. Critics have accused his party of being soft on radicals because it hasn’t cracked down on militant groups in its stronghold of Punjab Province.

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That could be a concern for the United States, which has pushed Pakistan for years to take stronger action against a variety of Islamic militant groups, especially fighters staging cross-border attacks against American troops in Afghanistan.

As unofficial returns rolled in Sunday, a day after the election, state TV estimates put Sharif close to the majority in the national assembly needed to govern outright for the next five years. Even if he falls short of that threshold, independent candidates almost certain to swing in Sharif’s favor would give his Pakistan Muslim League-N party a ruling majority.

That would put the 63-year-old Sharif in a much stronger position than the outgoing Pakistan People’s Party, which ruled for five years with a weak coalition that was often on the verge of collapse.

President Obama said on Sunday that Pakistanis upheld their commitment to democratic rule by successfully completing the parliamentary election.

With the weekend vote, the Parliament was able to complete its term and transfer power in democratic elections for the first time since Pakistan’s founding in 1947. Obama called it an “historic peaceful and transparent transfer of civilian power.’’

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The president said Pakistanis persevered despite ‘‘intimidation by violent extremists.’’

The Pakistani Taliban, which has been waging a bloody insurgency against the government, tried to derail the election with attacks.

More than 150 people were killed with guns and bombs in the run-up to the election, including 29 on election day.

But the turnout was nearly 60 percent, the highest in more than 40 years, the election commission said.

Sharif has called for negotiations with the Pakistani Taliban but hasn’t said clearly whether he thinks army operations against the militants should continue until peace is achieved.

His party, which has ruled Punjab for the past five years, has not taken any clear action against the powerful Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group based in that province.

In addition to civil disorder, Pakistan is facing 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. The country needs a growth rate of twice that to provide jobs for its expanding population of 180 million.

Ballooning energy subsidies and payments to keep failing public enterprises afloat have steadily eaten away at the government’s finances, forcing the country to seek another unpopular bailout from the International Monetary Fund. Pakistan also has an ineffective tax system, depriving the government of funds.

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