Pakistan’s president appealed for national unity after early unofficial returns showed the opposition heading towards victory today in parliamentary elections that could threaten his rule eight years after he seized power in a military coup.
The balloting was aimed at bolstering democracy and ending a year-long political crisis, but fear and apathy kept millions of voters at home yesterday.
The government confirmed 24 election-related deaths over the past 36 hours. But the country was spared the type of Islamic militant violence that scarred the campaign – most notably the assassination of charismatic opposition leader Benazir Bhutto.
Final official results are not expected until later today, but state-run television gave the two main opposition parties commanding leads in early unofficial tallies, a trend conceded by President Pervez Musharraf’s ruling Muslim League-Q party.
“As far as we are concerned, we will be willing to sit on opposition benches if final results prove that we have lost,” party spokesman Tariq Azeem said. “This is the trend.”
While Mr Musharraf was not on the ballot, the election was widely seen as a referendum on his leadership, including his alliance with the US in the war on terrorism, which many Pakistanis oppose. His opponents could force him to step down if they win a two-thirds majority in the legislature.
Two close political allies – the chairman of the ruling party and the outgoing railways minister – were among those who lost seats in Punjab, the most populous province and a key electoral battleground.
Mr Musharraf’s popularity plummeted following decisions late last year to impose emergency rule, purge the judiciary, jail political opponents and curtail press freedoms.
About 15 hours after voting began, the private Geo TV network said unofficial tallies from 169 of the 268 National Assembly seats being contested showed former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s opposition Pakistan Muslim League-N with 31.9% of the vote and Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party with 28.9%. The pro-Musharraf PML-Q was third with 11.8%.
While the tallies signalled that the opposition was headed for a clear victory, the highly regionalised nature of Pakistan politics made it difficult to make project the final make-up of parliament based on those results.
The Election Commission website had posted results for only 73 seats, with Mr Sharif’s party on 35.6%, Ms Bhutto’s party on 27.4% and the PML-Q with 5.4%.
An overwhelming defeat could leave Mr Musharraf politically weakened at a time when the US is pressing him to take more robust action against al-Qaida and Taliban fighters based in Pakistan’s restive north-western region along the Afghan border.
Mr Musharraf pledged to work with the new government regardless of which party won.
“I will give them full co-operation as president, whatever is my role,” he 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.”
Earlier the retired army general said a strong, democratically-elected government was needed to fight a rise in Islamic militancy.
In the north, prominent pro-Taliban cleric Maulana Fazl-ur Rehman was trailing far behind his rival from Ms 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 Mr Sharif’s party. “We face serious problems – the economy, law and order and then the problem of terrorism, which is 70% because of President Musharraf. He has to go.”
The US government, Mr 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 the nuclear-armed nation and a growing al-Qaida and Taliban presence in the north west.
“Every single vote must be counted fairly, and the numbers must be transmitted so decisions can be made,” said Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat who was one of several American politicians monitoring the election.
Ms Lee said that an “effective government for the people of Pakistan” was America’s “great concern”.
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 lacklustre campaigns.
Ms 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 non-profit Free and Fair Elections Network said reports from his group’s 20,000 election observers indicated voter turnout was about 35%. That would be the same as in the 1997 election – the lowest in Pakistan’s history.
Ms 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 on December 27 in Rawalpindi. Her death and the nationwide riots that followed prompted authorities to postpone the balloting for six weeks.
However, the assassination forced candidates to curtail public rallies over security concerns and her death appeared to drain much of the excitement from the campaign.