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Pressure against Musharraf grows

Wed., Feb. 20, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Calls mounted Tuesday for President Pervez Musharraf to step down after his ruling party suffered a resounding defeat in elections that independent monitors described as generally free and fair.

The door appeared open to the formation of a governing coalition that could allow the Pakistani leader to remain in office, but with his previously sweeping powers curtailed.

Musharraf’s lieutenants conceded defeat Tuesday after unofficial results showed the two major opposition parties were the top vote-getters in Monday’s parliamentary elections.

Final results were expected today.

Between them, the opposition parties connected with assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and with another ex-prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, won about 60 percent of contested parliamentary seats, according to unofficial results. The pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League-Q garnered a much smaller share.

Sharif, who was overthrown in a coup staged by Musharraf in 1999, cited the lopsided results as a mandate for the president to leave the political scene.

“The people have said what they want,” said Sharif, 58. He extended an offer to form a coalition with the apparent biggest vote-getter, Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party.

It was not clear whether the PPP, now led by Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari, would demand that the president step aside or seek an accommodation with him. The two opposition parties were to begin talks this week.

Election observers said that, despite complaints of irregularities, it appeared the vote was largely credible.

Some analysts said the degree of anti-Musharraf sentiment, which swept many of his closest confidants from office, simply was too overwhelming for the government to manipulate the vote.

“I think the government was planning to rig, but the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and the reaction to that forced a rethink,” said Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, head of the nonprofit Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency. “Had there been a perception of rigging, it is very likely the result would have been violence the government was unable to control.”


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