Pakistanis Deal a Blow to Musharraf

Eight weeks after Benazir Bhutto was slain, Pakistan held parliamentary elections on Monday, Feb. 18, 2008. The final results, expected days later, could shepherd a troubled nation into a new era of civilian rule and gird it against the Islamic extremists suspected of her killing.
By Candace Rondeaux and Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 19, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Feb. 19 -- Voters in Pakistan appeared to deliver a sharp rebuke to President Pervez Musharraf on Monday, handing significant victories to the country's two leading opposition parties in parliamentary elections, according to early returns and Pakistani politicians.

Official vote tallies were not expected to be released for several days, but by early Tuesday morning, there were indications that the party of Musharraf, a top U.S. ally, had fallen far out of favor with voters. The country's opposition groups were outpacing other parties by wide margins in several key provinces, including Punjab, home to more than half of this country's 80 million eligible voters.

The president of Musharraf's faction of the Pakistan Muslim League, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, along with several other prominent party leaders, lost their seats in parliament, according to Pakistan's Dawn News, an English-language television station.

In a televised address early Monday, Musharraf, who had promised to hold "free, fair and transparent" elections, pledged to abide by the results.

"This is the voice of the nation," he said on state-run Pakistan Television. "Everyone should accept the results. That includes myself."

Sporadic reports of clashes at polling stations and several bombings across Pakistan appeared to have kept many voters at home, particularly in urban areas. Opposition parties and election observers cited some instances of rigging and voter intimidation.

Pakistan has experienced widespread tumult since last year, when huge protests erupted following Musharraf's decision to fire the chief justice of the Supreme Court and place him and several other jurists under house arrest. In the following months, public frustration grew over increasing insurgent violence, rising consumer prices and corruption. In December, following the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, the president's popularity fell to an all-time low.

Monday's elections were widely seen as a referendum on Musharraf. Critics alleged that, because the president had been weakened, his government would attempt to manipulate the results to ensure his allies remained in power. A hostile parliament could move to impeach Musharraf, who has held power since a 1999 coup.

Rana Muhammad Riaz, 50, an engineering administrator who cast his vote in Rawalpindi, shrugged off suggestions that rigging would affect the outcome.

"I'm hopeful that we will have a democracy," he said. "Right now we have democracy, but it is not a complete democracy."

In the Punjab city of Lahore, the nation's cultural hub and second-largest city, polling was generally orderly, but turnout was extremely low. A provincial assembly candidate was killed Sunday night, casting a pall on voting throughout the city.

Across Lahore, a stronghold of the Pakistan Muslim League faction headed by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, early returns showed his party to be winning by a landslide, with the opposition Pakistan People's Party coming in a distant second and Musharraf's party trailing further behind.

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