LAHORE (AFP) - The front-runners in Pakistan's landmark general election won their seats late on Saturday after millions of people defied deadly Taleban attacks to take part in a historic democratic transition.
First results began coming through around four hours after polling stations closed at 6:00 pm (1300 GMT), having been extended because of the large numbers of people waiting to vote on a dramatic day in which 24 people were killed.
The main issues are the tanking economy, an appalling energy crisis that causes power cuts of up to 20 hours a day, the alliance in the US-led war on Islamist militants, chronic corruption and the dire need for development.
It marks the first time that an elected civilian administration has completed a full term and handed power to another through the ballot box in a country where there have been three military coups and four military rulers.
The front-runner is ex-prime minister Nawaz Sharif, head of the centre-right Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N), but the campaign has been electrified by cricket star Imran Khan with promises of reform and an end to corruption.
Both leaders won seats they had contested in - Khan defeated a strong incumbent in Peshawar, while Nawaz won in the town of Sargodha in his Punjab heartland - with the results announced within minutes of each other.
At PML-N headquarters in the eastern city of Lahore about 300 to 400 supporters who were watching the results coming in on television let out a huge cheer when Sharif's win was announced.
There was no immediate reaction from Khan, who is flat on his back in hospital with broken vertebrae after falling from the stage of an election rally on Tuesday, which prevented him from even voting.
"People have expressed confidence in Imran Khan and have rejected us," former cabinet minister and senior Awami National Party (ANP) member Ghulam Bilour told private Express TV. The seat in Peshawar was one of four that Khan contested.
"I congratulate him," Bilour told the TV channel. The secular ANP led the outgoing government in northwestern province Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, of which Peshawar is the capital.
With no reliable polling data, Sharif has been earmarked the most probable winner, but if PTI do well enough to become a formidable opposition there are concerns that the emergent coalition will be weak and possibly short-lived.
An election commission spokesman said turnout was more than 50 percent and expected to reach up to 60 percent, which would make it the highest since 1977.