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Pakistan opposition heads toward victory

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20080219/ap_on_re_as/pakistan_election;_ylt=AnA7tujtccgcn4WNMBDTG.Ks0NUE Pakistan opposition heads toward victory By ROBERT H. REID,
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 18, 2008

      Pakistan opposition heads toward victory

      By ROBERT H. REID, Associated Press Writer 15 minutes

      ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Pakistan opposition parties
      headed toward a convincing victory in Parliamentary
      elections, according to unofficial returns early
      Tuesday, threatening President Pervez Musharraf's rule
      eight years after he seized power in a military coup.

      Monday's balloting was aimed at bolstering democracy
      and ending a year-long political crisis, but fear and
      apathy kept millions of voters at home.

      The government confirmed 24 election-related deaths
      over the past 36 hours. But the country was spared the
      type of Islamic militant violence that scarred the
      campaign — most notably the assassination of the
      charismatic opposition leader, Benazir Bhutto.

      State-run television early Tuesday gave the two main
      opposition parties commanding leads in early
      unofficial tallies, a trend conceded by the
      president's Pakistan Muslim League-Q party. Final
      official results were not expected before Tuesday

      "As far as we are concerned, we will be willing to sit
      on opposition benches if final results prove that we
      have lost. This is the trend," party spokesman Tariq
      Azeem said.

      About 15 hours after voting began, the private Geo TV
      network said unofficial tallies from 169 of the 268
      National Assembly seats being contested showed former
      Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's opposition Pakistan
      Muslim League-N with 32 percent of the vote and
      Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party with 29 percent. The
      pro-Musharraf PML-Q was third with 12 percent.

      While the tallies signaled that the opposition was
      headed for victory, the highly regionalized nature of
      Pakistan politics made it difficult to make project
      the final make-up of parliament based on those

      The Election Commission Web site had posted results
      for only 73 seats, with Sharif's party on 36 percent,
      Bhutto's party on 27 percent and the PML-Q with 5

      Musharraf was not on the ballot, but the election was
      widely seen as a referendum on his eight-year rule —
      including his alliance with the United States in the
      war against terrorist groups that many Pakistanis

      If opposition parties can garner a two-thirds
      majority, they could impeach Musharraf.

      Several ministers in the outgoing Cabinet were
      electoral casualties. Two of Musharraf's closest
      political allies — the chairman of the ruling party
      and the outgoing railways minister — both lost seats
      in Punjab, the most populous province and a key
      electoral battleground.

      Though balloting proceeded without major attacks,
      Bhutto's party claimed that 15 of its members had been
      killed and hundreds injured in scattered violence
      "deliberately engineered to deter voters." Officials
      confirmed 24 deaths in election-related violence over
      the previous 24 hours, mostly in the country's biggest
      province of Punjab, the key electoral battleground.

      Musharraf's approval ratings have plummeted since his
      declaration of emergency rule in November and his
      purge of the judiciary to safeguard his re-election by
      the previous parliament a few weeks earlier.

      Going into the election, two public opinion surveys
      predicted Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party would
      finish first, followed by Sharif's party. The
      pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League-Q was in third.

      An overwhelming victory by the opposition would leave
      Musharraf politically vulnerable at a time when the
      United States is pressing him to take more robust
      action against al-Qaida and Taliban fighters based in
      Pakistan's restive northwestern region along the
      Afghan border.

      With his political future in the balance, Musharraf
      pledged to work with the new government regardless of
      which party wins.

      "I will give them full cooperation as president,
      whatever is my role," Musharraf said after casting his
      ballot in Rawalpindi. "Confrontationist policies ...
      should end and we should come into conciliatory
      politics in the interest of Pakistan. The situation
      demands this."

      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 toppled the Taliban in

      "I'm very happy, but we have to struggle," said Sadiq
      ul-Farooq, a senior official in Sharif's party, said
      of its strong election showingt. "We face serious
      problems — the economy, law and order and then the
      problem of terrorism, which is 70 percent because of
      President Musharraf. He has to go."

      The U.S. government, Musharraf's strongest
      international backer, was anxious for a credible
      election to shore up democratic forces at a time of
      mounting concern over political unrest in this
      nuclear-armed nation and a growing al-Qaida and
      Taliban presence in the northwest.

      "Every single vote must be counted fairly, and the
      numbers must be transmitted so decisions can be made,"
      said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat who was
      one of several American lawmakers monitoring the

      Lee said that an "effective government for the people
      of Pakistan" was America's "great concern."

      Despite the stakes, it appeared most of the country's
      81 million voters stayed home — either out of fear of
      extremist attacks or lack of enthusiasm for the
      candidates, many of whom waged lackluster campaigns.

      Sarwar Bari of the nonprofit Free and Fair Elections
      Network said reports from his group's 20,000 election
      observers indicated voter turnout was about 35
      percent. That would be the same as in the 1997
      election — the lowest in Pakistan's history.

      Ayaz Baig, the election commissioner in Pakistan's
      most populous province, Punjab, estimated turnout
      there at 30 percent to 40 percent — slightly lower
      than in the 2002 election. In Baluchistan and Sindh
      provinces, turnout was estimated at about 35 percent,
      officials said.

      Bhutto's party had hoped to ride a public wave of
      sympathy after the former prime minister was killed in
      a gun and suicide bomb attack Dec. 27 in Rawalpindi.
      Her death and the nationwide riots that followed
      prompted authorities to postpone the balloting for six

      But Bhutto's assassination forced candidates to
      curtail public rallies due to security concerns, and
      the death of the country's most charismatic figure
      appeared to drain much of the excitement from the

      "I was already disillusioned with politics and it only
      deepened after the death of Ms. Bhutto," said
      housewife Rifat Ashraf, who was relaxing at a park in
      the eastern city of Lahore. "There are three voters in
      our family, and they are all here having a picnic."

      Opposition officials had warned the government against
      trying to manipulate the results during the laborious
      count, saying there could be street protests if the
      count was rigged.

      "People came out today and they voted for us. But we
      are hearing that their votes will be stolen after
      darkness, and we will not tolerate it," opposition
      politician Shahbaz Sharif said on Geo television.
      "Those who want to rob our votes should listen that we
      will not allow them to do it."

      Opposition parties and analysts said local authorities
      used state resources to back ruling party candidates —
      charges that were denied by the government, which
      promised a free and fair vote.

      While fears of attack deterred some voters, sympathy
      for Bhutto and disaffection over rising food prices
      compelled others to take the risk and go to the polls.

      "My vote is for the PPP," said Munir Ahmed Tariq, a
      retired police officer in Nawab Shah. "If there is
      rigging this time, there will be a severe reaction.
      This is a sentiment of this nation."

      In the remote border region of Bajur, a possible
      hiding place of Osama bin Laden and his top deputy
      Ayman al-Zawahri, hundreds of Pashtun tribesmen turned
      out at a polling place inside a government college,
      and dismissed the threat of attack.

      "We are not afraid of the situation. Death comes only
      once," said farmer Amanat Shah.

      A nearby, segregated polling station for women, was
      empty — a reflection of conservative attitudes in
      Pakistan's tribal belt.


      Associated Press writers Stephen Graham in Lahore,
      Zarar Khan in Nawab Shah and Robin McDowell, Sadaqat
      Jan and Munir Ahmad in Islamabad contributed to this report.
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