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Pakistan Remakes Its Political Landscape

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.

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By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 20, 2008

LAHORE, Pakistan, Feb. 19 -- A new political era dawned in Pakistan on Tuesday as partial results from Monday's parliamentary elections showed the opposition scoring a landslide win, the party allied with President Pervez Musharraf conceded defeat, and secular candidates ousted religious parties in the volatile northwest.

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Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, who heads the pro-government Pakistan Muslim League-Q, said his party would "accept the results with an open heart" and "sit on the opposition benches" in the new Parliament. By Tuesday evening, with most of the vote counted, the two major opposition parties had won 154 of the 272 elected seats in the National Assembly, compared with 38 for the PML-Q. In all, the assembly has 342 seats.

The vote for the lower house was seen as a stinging rebuke of Musharraf. Aitzaz Ahsan, a lawyer and opposition party leader who has been under house arrest for three months, cast the result as a symbol of democracy.

"General Musharraf represents the rule of man over law, and the resounding verdict of the people is that they yearn to be ruled by laws, not men," Ahsan said.

The fallout from Monday's elections could have a major impact on relations between Pakistan and the United States, which has strongly backed Musharraf as a partner in counterterrorism efforts, despite growing frustration over his failure to stop Islamic extremists creating havens in Pakistan and fueling the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.

Pakistan was quiet Tuesday except for bursts of drumming, dancing and celebratory gunfire outside rural opposition party offices and fireworks after dark in some urban neighborhoods.

People appeared mostly relieved that the elections had concluded with only limited violence and irregularities, while winning and losing candidates both spoke of the need for cooperation and peace. Despite widespread predictions that the government would try to rig the vote, monitors said the polling process went surprisingly smoothly, and the PML-Q's concession came quickly.

Nevertheless, the emerging political landscape was far from clear. Neither of the two main opposition groups -- the Pakistan People's Party and the Pakistan Muslim League-N -- gained a majority, and neither has a dominant candidate for prime minister, thus opening the door to complicated coalitions and deals.

The Pakistan People's Party swept its bastion of Sindh province and won the highest number of seats in the National Assembly, benefiting from sympathy over the December assassination of its leader, Benazir Bhutto, as well as disenchantment with Musharraf's rule. Official but not final results showed the Pakistan People's Party with 88 seats, the Pakistan Muslim League-N with 66, the Pakistan Muslim League-Q with 38 and three smaller parties or groupings with 34.

Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto's widower and interim successor as party head, told reporters in Islamabad that the Pakistan People's Party would form a government "in the center and all the four provinces with the help of our allies." He said the party had yet to decide who would become the "leader of Parliament," presumably a reference to the prime minister's post.

Nawaz Sharif, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-N and a two-time prime minister, reached out Tuesday to the Pakistan People's Party, his organization's longtime arch rival, and to politicians from the PML-Q who had excoriated him during the parliamentary campaign.

Sharif also called for Musharraf to step down in light of the public judgment against his rule. A former army general, Musharraf agreed under pressure to remove his uniform in November, becoming a civilian president, but many Pakistanis want him to bow out of politics completely.


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