Even before official results came in, certain main trends were clear. PML-N leader Mian Nawaz Sharif  though short of an absolute majority in the National Assembly would head the new Government. Imran Khan’s PTI could well become the second largest party, edging out the PPP, the former ruling party which was running close. The PTI has done well even if not to the extent expected by its now anguished, youthful supporters.

The PPP, the only party traditionally with significant presence in all provinces has faded as a national entity. While it is a shadow of its former self in Sindh, it has been diminished in size and scale elsewhere. The PTI has still done better in Punjab’s provincial elections as could be expected against an incumbent government. However as the largest party in KPK’s provincial assembly replacing the ANP, it can form the provincial government. Of course it would gain experience of local politics and alliances besides would have a chance to show what feats it can achieve for the nation.

What are the implications of the election process and results, and what do they portend for the future of this nuclear regional power of 180 million people? The election exercise, registering 86 million voters, with 15,629 candidates for 848 Federal and Provincial seats, 645,000 polling staff, 600,000 security personnel and 69,801 polling stations, went well despite the worst pre-election terrorist violence in Pakistan’s history. The highest ever turnout of 60 percent shows the importance the voters gave the elections and their defiance of terrorism threat.

Unfortunately enabling Pakistanis abroad to vote was taken up too late thus omitting from the electorate our students, and diaspora abroad whose remittances have been keeping the economy afloat. The Ordinance promulgated for future elections needs to be passed as an Act and diplomatic agreements worked out well in time, from now, with other countries.

The selective targeting of the progressive parties by the TTP has not provided them with a level playing field. But in the case of the PPP which ruled at the center and the ANP which governed in KPK , the public’s widespread unhappiness with their performance partly explains the results.

The new factor has been the rise of Imran Khan’s PTI as the third force in a traditionally two horse race. Imran’s iconic status, predicated on his personal charisma and his apolitical achievements; his reputation untouched by allegations of corruption; a desire for change from the two parties and military who have ruled and misruled Pakistan these last 42 years; and support from educated/liberal circles and youth is clear. Why did the PTI not do even better? Imran lacked the time to create a nationwide party organization or to field candidates for every seat in the national and provincial elections.

The youth surge is the most significant new factor in the elections but with inadequate educational opportunities, joblessness, growth of religious conservatism and lack of cable penetration in the rural areas, the percentage of youth supporting the PTI is more than matched by those supporting the PML- N and the religious parties. In fact, the inspiring and infectious ambiance generated by Imran’s youthful supporters has served as a model for other parties.

Nawaz Sharif whose party and brother Shahbaz Sharif as Chief Minister have run Punjab for the past five years is an old campaigner, and his well-oiled party organisation did well. While their transport projects have taken the limelight, improving the state educational system in Punjab with catalytic support from the UK’s DFID is a noteworthy achievement requiring follow-up and replication throughout Pakistan as education and infrastructure are the keys to Pakistan’s progress. While he will now command a majority in the National Assembly with the independents and others who will join, he has invited all parties to cooperate in confronting the challenges - tackling the energy crisis, eradicating poverty and other national problems-now facing Pakistan.

Although a formal coalition shall not be required, Pakistan will still need to be run by a coalition approach. The PTI in any case would not have joined Nawaz Sharif as Imran Khan had declared he would not partner either the PPP or the PML-N.Hence an arrangement will probably be worked out with the PPP who in any case will control Sindh, which as second largest province cannot be alienated. In Balochistan, the PML-N is now represented and a coalition will result. With the PTI as the largest party in KPK, the fact that both it and the PML-N have similar positions on political rather than military resolution of the Taliban problem may facilitate a working accommodation.

The apprehension of a hung parliament is now over. The strong government that should now emerge, run by capable politicians ready to appoint and be advised by competent bureaucrats of integrity, is well positioned to reassert control and take back space on foreign policy, security, defence and nuclear policy from the military which had moved into the vacuum created by weak governments and politicians unversed in these crucial issues. An active opposition presence in the National Assembly led by Imran Khan would be a healthy development and accountability check likewise.

To solve the pressing internal problems of the overarching energy crisis, reviving the economy, restoring foreign exchange  reserves and combating extremism and terrorism, Nawaz Sharif will  need to evolve national consensus where possible and at least coalitions of the willing.  That base would better empower him to tackle equally important external issues: strengthening the strategic relationship with China, engaging with a US wary of his position on terrorism, improving relations with India without compromising Pakistan’s national interests, and meeting the challenge increasingly presented by Afghanistan as the US withdraws. He has the required gravitas, should have learnt from what he has undergone in the last two decades, and has this latest example before him of the fate of a government that disappoints its electorate. The majority Mian Nawaz Sharif will be able to command in Parliament is both a political boon bestowed upon him by the people of Pakistan and a heavy responsibility he now bears for the realization of their expectations.

The writer is a former Pakistani diplomat.