President Pervez Musharraf appealed for national unity as early unofficial returns showed the opposition with a commanding lead Tuesday in parliamentary elections aimed at bolstering democracy and calming political strife.
Fear and apathy kept millions of voters at home. But while at least 24 people were killed in election-related violence, the country was spared the type of Islamic militant attacks that scarred the campaign, most notably the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto.
Though Musharraf was not on the ballot, Monday’s election was widely seen as a referendum on his eight-year rule, including his alliance with the United States in the war on terrorist groups, which many Pakistanis oppose. If his opponents seize control of parliament, he could be forced to step down.
Final official results were not expected until late Tuesday, but state-run television gave the two main opposition parties commanding leads in early unofficial tallies, a trend conceded by the president’s Pakistan Muslim League-Q party.
Two of his close 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.
“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.
Musharraf’s approval ratings have plummeted in recent months following decisions to impose emergency rule, purge the judiciary, jail political opponents and curtail press freedoms.
Going into the election, two public opinion surveys predicted Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party would finish first, followed by the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-N of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. The pro-Musharraf PML-Q was third.
An overwhelming defeat could leave Musharraf politically weakened 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 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.”
More than 12 hours after counting began, state-run Pakistan TV said unofficial tallies were complete for more than 100 of the 268 parliament seats being contested. It gave Bhutto and Sharif’s parties nearly 70 per cent of the vote, with Sharif’s party leading.
In the north, prominent pro-Taliban cleric Maulana Fazl-ur Rehman was trailing far behind his rival from Bhutto’s party with more than half the precincts in their district reporting.
“I’m very happy, but we have to struggle,” said Sadiq ul-Farooq, a senior official in Sharif’s party. “We face serious problems - the economy, law and order and then the problem of terrorism, which is 70 per cent because of President Musharraf. He has to go.”
The US 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.
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.
Bhutto’s party claimed 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 Punjab.
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 per cent. That would be the same as in the 1997 election - the lowest in Pakistan’s history.
Ayaz Baig, the election commissioner in Punjab, estimated turnout there at 30 per cent to 40 per cent - slightly lower than in the 2002 election. In Baluchistan and Sindh provinces, turnout was estimated at about 35 per cent, officials said.
In Lahore, 2,740 voters were registered at two polling stations in a primary school in an upper middle class district. Less than two hours before the polls closed, only 760 people - or 28 per cent - had cast ballots.
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 December 27 in Rawalpindi. Her death and the nationwide riots that followed prompted authorities to postpone the balloting for six weeks.
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 campaign.
“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.” (AP)
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