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Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's opponents called on the key US ally to resign on Tuesday after his backers conceded that voters dealt them a crushing defeat in general elections.
Celebratory gunfire erupted in several cities as unofficial preliminary results on state television showed a big win for the parties of former premier Nawaz Sharif and slain political icon Benazir Bhutto.
"Musharraf has said he would quit when people tell him. People have now given their verdict," said two-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif, the man Musharraf ousted in a bloodless coup in 1999.
Leading pro-democracy lawyer Aitzaz Ahsan, held under house arrest since Musharraf imposed a state of emergency in November, said the president should step down because he was the "most hated man in the country".
Musharraf's spokesman bluntly rejected calls for the president to stand down and said the former general was willing to work with whoever forms a government.
"They are way off in their demands," spokesman Major General Rashid Qureshi told AFP. "This is not the election for president. President Musharraf is already elected for five years."
Unofficial results showed a rout of the pro-Musharraf ruling party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Q (PML-Q), placing the president at risk of a hostile parliament that, in theory, could seek his impeachment.
"We accept the verdict of the nation," said Tariq Azeem, a spokesman for the PML-Q, which backed Musharraf throughout the last parliament. "We officially concede defeat."
Sharif said he wanted to work with other opposition parties in parliament to "rid Pakistan of dictatorship forever."
He told reporters in the eastern city of Lahore that he had already spoken to Bhutto's widower, Asif Ali Zardari, and would meet him Thursday in Islamabad for further talks.
With votes counted in 258 constituencies, the PML-Q and its allies had taken a total of 58 seats. The party's chief and several key members lost their seats in Pakistan's national assembly.
Even if the PML-Q won all the remaining seats not yet counted, they would not be able to attain a majority in the parliament, which has 272 elected and 70 unelected seats reserved for women and minorities.
US Senator John Kerry, in Pakistan as part of a team to observe the elections, said the vote "meets the basic threshold of credibility and legitimacy."
The opposition had feared polls would be rigged.
State television said Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) had 87 seats, Sharif's faction of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) had 66 seats, with the PML-Q, smaller parties and independents taking the rest, according to preliminary unofficial results.
The death of Bhutto in a December 27 gun and suicide attack - along with other suicide bombings - overshadowed the campaign and forced the election's delay until Monday.
The vote "means the forces of democracy and the rule of law have won," Talat Masood, a former general who is now a political and defence analyst, told AFP.
He said the election results also show that the previous government's support of the West and its "war on terror" have "been totally rejected by the people".
High-profile victims who lost their seats included party president Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain and almost all of Musharraf's former cabinet.
Full results were not expected until late Tuesday or early Wednesday.
Musharraf will become a powerless leader at best - and could lose his job - if the trends were confirmed, analysts said.
Observers said Musharraf would likely try to woo Bhutto's party and split it from Sharif's, but said the president's need to fight for his own political survival would distract him from fighting terrorism.
Musharraf has been viewed by the United States as its bulwark in the fight against Al Qaeda and Taliban militants based in Pakistan's tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan.
After casting his ballot, the embattled president - who stepped down as army chief in November last year amid political turmoil and bloodshed sparked by his efforts to remain in power - said he would accept the outcome.
"The result will be the voice of the nation and whosoever wins we should accept it - that includes myself," he told state television.
The election commission put turnout according to early results at about 45 per cent - higher than in the previous two elections.
Preliminary results also showed a near total defeat for hardline Islamic parties that under the previous administration ruled Pakistan's North West Frontier Province bordering Afghanistan. (AFP)
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