Pakistan opposition has solid vote lead

( AP ) - President Pervez Musharraf appealed for national unity as unofficial returns showed the opposition taking commanding leads early Tuesday in parliamentary elections aimed at bolstering democracy and calming political strife.

Fear and apathy kept millions of voters at home during Monday's vote. But while at least 24 people were killed in election-related violence, the country was spared the type of Islamic militant attacks that scarred the campaign, most notably the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto.

State-run television early Tuesday gave the two main opposition parties strong leads in early unofficial tallies, a trend conceded by the president's Pakistan Muslim League-Q party. Final official results were not expected before Wednesday.

"As far as we are concerned, we will be willing to sit on opposition benches if final results prove that we have lost. This is the trend," party spokesman Tariq Azeem said.

If the vote pattery continues, it will ease concerns that lack of a clear winner could result in a government too fragmented to rally the nation against Islamic extremists.

Two of Musharraf's close political allies - the chairman of the ruling party and the outgoing railways minister - both lost seats in Punjab, the most populous province and a key electoral battleground.

Though balloting proceeded without major attacks, Bhutto's party claimed that 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 the country's biggest province of Punjab, the key electoral battleground.

Musharraf was not on the ballot, but the election was widely seen as a referendum on his eight-year rule - including his alliance with the United States in the war against terrorist groups that many Pakistanis oppose.

Musharraf's approval ratings have plummeted since his declaration of emergency rule in November and his purge of the judiciary to safeguard his re-election by the previous parliament a few weeks earlier.

Going into the election, two public opinion surveys predicted Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party would finish first, followed by the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-N of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. The pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League-Q was in third.

More than 12 hours after counting began, state-run Pakistan TV said early Tuesday that unofficial tallies were complete for more than 100 of the 268 parliament seats being contested. It gave Bhutto and Sharif's parties nearly 70 percent of the vote, with Sharif's party leading.

An overwhelming victory by the opposition could leave Musharraf politically weakened at a time when the United States is pressing him to take more robust action against al-Qaida and Taliban fighters based in Pakistan's restive northwestern region along the Afghan border.

With his political future in the balance, Musharraf pledged to work with the new government regardless of which party wins.

"I will give them full cooperation as president, whatever is my role," Musharraf 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."

In the north, prominent pro-Taliban cleric Maulana Fazl-ur Rehman was trailing far behind his rival from 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 Sharif's party. "We face serious problems - the economy, law and order and then the problem of terrorism, which is 70 percent because of President Musharraf. He has to go."

The U.S. government, 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 this nuclear-armed nation and a growing al-Qaida and Taliban presence in the northwest.

"Every single vote must be counted fairly, and the numbers must be transmitted so decisions can be made," said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat who was one of several American lawmakers monitoring the election.

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 lackluster campaigns.

Sarwar Bari of the nonprofit Free and Fair Elections Network said reports from his group's 20,000 election observers indicated voter turnout was about 35 percent. That would be the same as in the 1997 election - the lowest in Pakistan's history.

Ayaz Baig, the election commissioner in Pakistan's most populous province, Punjab, estimated turnout there at 30 percent to 40 percent - slightly lower than in the 2002 election. In Baluchistan and Sindh provinces, turnout was estimated at about 35 percent, officials said.

In Lahore, 2,740 voters were registered at two polling stations in a primary school in an upper middle class district. Less than two hours before the polls closed, only 760 people - or 28 percent - had cast ballots.

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 Dec. 27 in Rawalpindi. Her death and the nationwide riots that followed prompted authorities to postpone the balloting for six weeks.

But Bhutto's assassination forced candidates to curtail public rallies due to security concerns, and the death of the country's most charismatic figure appeared to drain much of the excitement from the campaign.

"I was already disillusioned with politics and it only deepened after the death of Ms. Bhutto," said housewife Rifat Ashraf, who was relaxing at a park in the eastern city of Lahore. "There are three voters in our family, and they are all here having a picnic."

With turnout so low, it was unclear whether the ruling party machinery was more successful in getting its supporters to the polls, especially in Punjab, its political base.

Opposition officials warned the government against trying to manipulate the results during the laborious count, saying there could be street protests if the count was rigged.

"People came out today and they voted for us. But we are hearing that their votes will be stolen after darkness, and we will not tolerate it," opposition politician Shahbaz Sharif said on Geo television. "Those who want to rob our votes should listen that we will not allow them to do it."

Opposition parties and analysts said local authorities used state resources to back ruling party candidates - charges that were denied by the government, which promised a free and fair vote.

Police arrested an election official after 600 ballot papers went missing from a polling station in the southern city of Shikarpur, police official Ali Mohammed Shahni said.

While fears of attack deterred some voters, sympathy for Bhutto and disaffection over rising food prices compelled others to take the risk and go to the polls.

"My vote is for the PPP," said Munir Ahmed Tariq, a retired police officer in Nawab Shah. "If there is rigging this time, there will be a severe reaction. This is a sentiment of this nation."

In the remote border region of Bajur, a possible hiding place of Osama bin Laden and his top deputy Ayman al-Zawahri, hundreds of Pashtun tribesmen turned out at a polling place inside a government college, and dismissed the threat of attack.

"We are not afraid of the situation. Death comes only once," said farmer Amanat Shah.

A nearby, segregated polling station for women, was empty - a reflection of conservative attitudes in Pakistan's tribal belt.

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