Pakistan opposition heads toward victory
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
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
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
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
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,
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.