Mr. Khan, on the other hand, was someone the military bosses seemed to think they could work with. Analysts said he shared their worldview, in which Pakistan would kowtow less to the United States and talk more with the Taliban and other extremist groups.

In the prelude to the election, the military seemed to push even harder for Mr. Khan. Human rights groups, academics and members of other political parties said security officers threatened politicians in rival parties to defect to Mr. Khan’s side. Several did.

That does not mean that Mr. Khan was not genuinely popular. He was, especially among young men who lionized him as a sports hero. As nationwide elections drew closer, a Khan wave began to sweep Pakistan. His face was everywhere — on banners, lampposts and torn flags flying from the sputtering rickshaws that flit in and out of traffic. His supporters were the most energized and the most confident. His party’s symbol: a cricket bat.

Votes were still being tabulated on Thursday, but Mr. Khan’s party was far ahead of all the others, though still falling short of an outright majority in Parliament. According to results aired on state television, Mr. Khan’s party had won 120 seats, Mr. Sharif’s party had won 61 and a party run by the Bhuttos, one of Pakistan’s most storied political families, had notched 40.

It is widely expected that in the coming days, Mr. Khan will entice politicians from several different smaller parties to join a coalition government, with him as prime minister. Depending on how many smaller parties he woos, his government could be strong or weak.

What will Mr. Khan face?

Domestically, the challenges will be overwhelming. Pakistan’s electricity grid is falling apart, its infant mortality rate is among the most distressing in Asia, its currency is sliding, and its debt — especially to China — is ballooning. So many Pakistanis are unable to find jobs that every year, countless young men set off on a desperate exodus to the Middle East to work as street cleaners, luggage handlers, anything.

Orignially published in NYT.

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