Early results show Pakistani opposition parties have made "big gains" in elections that could determine the future of President Pervez Musharraf, the former ruling party and officials said on Tuesday.
The parties of former premier Nawaz Sharif and slain politician Benazir Bhutto opened up a lead over the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League-Q after Monday's crucial parliamentary polls, they said.
PML-Q president Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, one of Musharraf's closest political allies, had lost his parliamentary seats in Punjab province, a senior party official and an electoral official added.
The results leave Musharraf's future in the balance, as a parliament packed with his enemies could weaken him or even leave him open to impeachment.
"Early results show that there is a big gain for the Pakistan Muslim League of Nawaz Sharif (PML-N)," said PML-Q spokesman Tariq Azeem, the deputy information minister in the government, which served out its five-year term in November.
"If the results are confirmed we will play the part of the opposition as effectively as we can," he said.
The elections were the key final step in Pakistan's transition to civilian democracy after eight years of military rule and the results appear to dispel opposition fears that the polls would be massively rigged.
Azeem added: "We congratulate Nawaz Sharif for an excellent performance by his party and we also congratulate Asif Ali Zardari," the head of slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP).
Sharif was ousted by Musharraf in a military coup in 1999 and sent into exile the following year. He returned to Pakistan late last year.
A party official said on condition of anonymity: "The results are shocking but unfortunately we are losing and the Nawaz Sharif factor has played a very big role in our defeat."
Government officials confirmed the voting trend, although official results have only just started trickling in and full details were not expected until late Tuesday or early Wednesday.
"Preliminary results indicate both the PPP and PML-N are ahead of PML-Q in Punjab," a top provincial official told AFP.
A senior election commission official admitted that the results were "not very encouraging for the former ruling party and the PPP and the PML-N were leading the contest in early results in Punjab province."
Bhutto's party is widely expected to win in southern Sindh province, a traditional stronghold of the two-time ex-prime minister, who was slain at a political rally on December 27.
Monday's polls were overshadowed by her assassination but were not hit by the militant suicide attacks that many had feared.
In sporadic political violence Sunday and Monday at least 19 people were killed and 100 injured.
National turnout was estimated at 40 percent of Pakistan's 81 million eligible voters, a senior electoral official said. The figure was 42 percent in the last elections in 2002 and 37 percent in 1997.
Western allies will be closely watching the result of the polls in the nuclear-armed Islamic nation.
Musharraf, who seized power in a coup in 1999 and stepped down as army chief in November, called on Monday for reconciliation after the vote.
"Whoever wins the polls, as president of Pakistan, I will function with them in a totally
harmonious manner," Musharraf told state television after he cast his vote in the garrison city of Rawalpindi.
The former general is viewed by the United States as its key ally in the fight against Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants based in Pakistan's tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan.
A candidate from Sharif's party who was standing in provincial elections that were also being held Monday was among five people shot dead late Sunday in Lahore. Another Sharif supporter was killed on Monday.
Security officials said another 13 people were killed on Monday.
At least eight bombs exploded Monday in Pakistan's insurgency-hit northwest and Southwest but caused no casualties, officials said. The same day a rocket-propelled grenade hit a polling station in the south of the country.
Campaigning ended in bloodshed on Saturday when a suicide car bomber ploughed into a meeting of Bhutto's supporters in the northwestern tribal town of Parachinar, killing 47 people and wounding more than 100 others.
More than 90 people died in bombings during the week leading up to the vote.