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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.

"The people have given their verdict," Sharif told reporters here, saying that political parties should "work together to get rid of dictatorship." Sharif, who was overthrown by Musharraf in 1999, returned from exile in November. Although legally barred from running for office, he led his party to a sweeping victory in its Punjab province stronghold.

Musharraf has said he will work with any party that comes to power, but he has given no sign of being willing to leave office. The election results leave him with seriously diminished credibility, however, and if the opposition can build a large enough coalition to hold two-thirds of the seats in Parliament, he could be impeached. At this point, it is unclear how many lawmakers would favor impeachment.

Zardari stopped short of calling for Musharraf to resign, saying it should be up to the new Parliament.

One party that scored a significant surprise win Monday was the progressive, ethnic-based Awami National Party, which benefited from the poor performance of religious parties that had come to power in North-West Frontier Province five years ago. Its victory raised hopes of a new bulwark against growing Islamic militancy in the region bordering Afghanistan.

"Our founding fathers laid the principle of nonviolence decades ago. That is something we badly need as a nation at this very moment," the Awami National Party's leader, Asfandyar Wali Khan, told jubilant supporters Tuesday in his home village near the northwestern city of Peshawar. Khan, a veteran ethnic Pashtun leader who lost his National Assembly seat to a religious candidate in 2002, regained it easily Monday. The party appeared to win 10 seats in the assembly.

Several U.S. lawmakers were in Pakistan to observe the vote. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), speaking to reporters, called the election "an opportunity for us to move from a policy that's been focused on a personality to one that's based upon an entire people." Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) called the vote a tribute to the Pakistani people's "unbelievable thirst for change and democracy."

In Washington, the Bush administration said U.S.-Pakistani relations would remain strong regardless of the election results.

"We want to work with the new government. We expect we can work with the new government and have good cooperation with them," State Department spokesman Tom Casey said. "We've maintained ties to all the major political parties both before and during this electoral period and certainly expect to do so afterwards as well."

Casey also called on the new Parliament to work closely with Musharraf.

Many Pakistanis have expressed deep displeasure at the continued U.S. support for Musharraf, even after he fired senior judges and imposed emergency rule in November.

Ahsan, the lawyer who has been under house arrest, said foreign governments must carefully assess their policies on Musharraf. He had been barred from speaking to the news media since November but was allowed to receive reporters in his law office Tuesday.

"The West must see how singularly unpopular he is. If they try to hold on to him or stitch together alliances to support him, they will be swimming against the tide," said Ahsan, a leader in the Pakistan People's Party. "We are with the West in the fight against terror, but the real, effective weapon in that fight is an empowered people with enforceable rights."

Correspondent Candace Rondeaux in Islamabad, special correspondent Imtiaz Ali in Peshawar and staff writer Robin Wright in Washington contributed to this report.

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