ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – President Pervez Musharraf appealed for national unity as unofficial returns showed the opposition taking commanding leads early today 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 gave the two main opposition parties strong leads in today’s 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 pattern 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 Punjab.
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.
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 the restive northwest 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.”