Pakistan's ruling party conceded defeat on Tuesday after opposition parties routed allies of President Pervez Musharraf in parliamentary elections that could threaten the rule of America's close ally in the war on terror. A leading opposition figure suggested that Musharraf should listen to the "verdict" of the people in the Monday balloting and step down.
As partial returns pointed to an opposition landslide, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, head of the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, told AP Television News that "we accept the results with an open heart" and "will sit on opposition benches" in the new parliament." "All the King's men, gone!" proclaimed a banner headline in the Daily Times. "Heavyweights knocked out," read the Dawn newspaper. The private Geo TV network said the party of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and another group led by ex-premier Nawaz Sharif had so far won 149 seats, more than half of the 272-seat National Assembly.
The Pakistan Muslim League-Q party was a distant third with 33 seats.
Several close political allies of Musharraf were election casualties. The chairman of the ruling party, the foreign minister and railways minister were among those who lost seats in Punjab, the most populous province and a key electoral battleground. Religious parties also fared badly, and were set to lose their control of the North West Frontier province gained in the last parliamentary elections in 2002, when they benefited from Pakistani anger over the U.S.-led invasion to topple the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The results cast doubt on the political future of Musharraf, who was re-elected to a five year term last October in a controversial parliamentary ballot.
With the support of smaller groups and independent candidates, the opposition could gain the two-thirds majority in parliament needed to impeach Musharraf, who has angered many Pakistanis by allying the country with Washington in 2001 to fight al-Qaida and the Taliban after the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States. Final results were not expected before Tuesday evening, but the election's outcome appeared to be a stinging public verdict on Musharraf's rule after his popularity plummeted following his decisions late last year to impose emergency rule, purge the judiciary, jail political opponents and curtail press freedoms. Sharif reminded reporters in Lahore that Musharraf had said he would step down when the people wanted him to do so. "And now people have given their verdict," Sharif said, adding that political parties should "work together to get rid of dictatorship."
Musharraf has promised to work with whatever government emerges from the election. But the former general is hugely unpopular among the public and opposition parties that have been catapulted into power are likely to find little reason to work with him _ particularly since he no longer controls the powerful army. Sharif has been especially outspoken in demanding that Musharraf be removed and that the Supreme Court justices whom the president sacked late last year be returned to their posts. Those judges were fired as they prepared to rule on whether Musharraf's re-election last October was constitutional.
If the opposition falls short of enough votes to remove Musharraf, the new government could reinstate the Supreme Court justices and ask them to declare the October election invalid. The spokesman for Sharif's party, Sadiq ul-Farooq, told reporters Tuesday that Musharraf "should go." But he added that if the restored justices validate Musharraf's October election to a new term, the opposition would accept the decision.
"We want to put Pakistan back on the track of democracy, constitution and rule of law, and the restoration of sacked judges is a must to achieve this goal," he said.
Musharraf, at best, faces the prospect of remaining in power with sharply diminished powers and facing a public hostile to him. Last year he stepped down as army chief, and his successor has pledged to remove the military from politics.
The PML-Q said it accepted the results, but Pervaiz Elahi, the party's president, noted that the party had stood by Musharraf for five years.
"We respect him, and we are still with him," Elahi, the outgoing chief minister of Punjab province, told Geo TV on Tuesday. The results could have far-reaching implications for the U.S.-led war on terror, especially Pakistani military operations against al-Qaida and Taliban-style militants in border areas of the northwest. Sharif and others have called for dialogue with the extremists and have criticized military operations in the area because of their impact on civilians.
Afrasiab Khattak, a leading opposition politician from the northwest, said his Awami National Party did not believe "that a military solution will work," adding his group "will never support American forces coming here and operating."
Still, hard-line religious parties were faring badly in the North West Frontier Province. Islamists won control of the provincial government in 2002, after which al-Qaida and Taliban militia stepped up operations in the area near the Afghan border. This time, a Pashtun nationalist group, the Awami National Party, was leading with 30 of the 99 contested assembly seats while Bhutto's party was trailing second with 15. The party of pro-Taliban cleric, Maulana Fazl-ur Rehman, won only eight seats, according to a tally reported by the Geo TV station.
In Karachi, the Pakistani stock market rose 2.15 percent to 14,669.87 points and the rupee gained against the U.S. dollar. Traders said the market was reacting positively because the election was generally peaceful.
Although fear and apathy kept millions of voters at home Monday, the elections for national and provincial assemblies were a major step toward democracy in Pakistan, which has been under military rule for the past eight years under Musharraf and for over half of its 60-year history.
But a win by the opposition is likely to restore the public's faith in the political process and quell fears that the results would be rigged in favor of the pro-Musharraf forces. Islamic militant violence scarred the campaign, most notably the Dec. 27 assassination of charismatic opposition leader Bhutto, but polling day was spared such an attack. The government, however, confirmed 24 election-related deaths in clashes between political parties.