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.
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.
"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.