Musharraf nearing defeat as opposition leads Pakistani vote

Other News Materials 19 February 2008 04:28 (UTC +04:00)

( dpa ) - Embattled Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf was heading for a devastating election defeat Tuesday as opposition parties dominated early polling results from crucial parliamentary elections the previous day.

Local news channels reported the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q), Musharraf's political backers, lagging far behind the opposition parties of slain Pakistani leader Benazir Bhutto and fellow former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

Unofficial results from 87 of the 272 National Assembly seats showed Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz leading with 36 seats, Bhutto's Pakistani People's Party (PPP) with 29 seats, and the PML-Q with only nine.

The early results indicated that Monday's elections were widely free and fair, as Musharraf had promised, amid persistent allegations of planned vote-rigging by his government. Feared widespread election violence including suicide bombings also never materialized.

Even though results were preliminary, opposition party workers started victory celebrations overnight, including distributing sweets, a traditional practice, in the eastern city of Lahore.

"We are feeling good," said Ahsan Iqbal, the PML-N's information secretary, who also won a national parliament seat. "The Pakistani public has voted against Musharraf's policies, and for change."

Most senior PML-Q candidates, including the party's president, its prime ministerial candidate, and several members of the Musharraf government cabinet all lost in their respective constituencies.

Geo news channel reported that Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, leader of the PML and Musharraf's close aid, lost by almost 14,000 votes in his home town against a PPP candidate.

Sheikh Rashid, another close aide to the president and PML-Q candidate, also lost by a wide margin in what analysts said was part of a massive backlash against Musharraf, a recently-retired Army general who seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999.

The PPP appeared to be sweeping through the southern province of Sindh, its traditional stronghold, while Nawaz's party was leading in his home Punjab province, the most hotly-contested region and where the ruling PML-Q is also based.

Monday's polls for the national parliament and four provincial assemblies had been described by many analysts as crucial for the embattled president's survival, as victory for opposition parties would severely weaken Musharraf, a key US ally in the war against terrorism.

Musharraf was at the center of a year-long political crisis that escalated in November 2007 after he declared a state of emergency, suspended the constitution and sacked dozens of Supreme Court judges whom he feared were going to overturn his controversial presidential re-election the previous month.

Pakistan has also been rocked by dozens of suicide bombings from pro-Taliban and al-Qaeda militants operating in the country's lawless tribal areas near Afghanistan, who were also blamed for killing Bhutto at a campaign rally last December 27.

Musharraf said Monday that he would accept whichever party won the polls and appointed the prime minister, as well as won control of the four provincial governments.