Pakistanis deal severe defeat to Musharraf in election
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan: Pakistanis dealt a crushing defeat to President Pervez Musharraf in parliamentary elections Monday, in what government and opposition politicians said was a firm rejection of his policies since 2001 and those of his close ally, the United States.
Almost all the leading figures in the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, the party that has governed for the last five years under Musharraf, lost their seats, including the leader of the party, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussein, the former speaker of parliament, Chaudhry Amir Hussein, and six ministers.
Though official results would not be announced until Tuesday, early returns indicated that the vote would usher in a prime minister from one of the opposition parties, and opened the prospect of a parliament that would move to undo many of Musharraf's policies and that may even try to remove him.
The early edge went to the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party, which seemed to benefit from a strong wave of sympathy in reaction to the assassination of its leader, Benazir Bhutto, eight weeks ago, and may be in a position to form the next government.
The results were interpreted here as a repudiation of Musharraf as well as the Bush administration, which has staunchly backed Musharraf for eight years as its best bet in the campaign against the Islamic militants in Pakistan. American officials will have little choice now but to seek alternative allies from among the new political forces emerging from the vote.
Politicians and party workers from Musharraf's party said the vote was a protest against government policies and the rise in terrorism here, in particular against Musharraf's heavy handed way of dealing with militancy and his use of the army against tribesmen in the border areas and against militants in a siege at the Red Mosque here in the capital last summer that left more than 100 dead.
Others said Musharraf's dismissal last year of the Supreme Court chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, who remains under house arrest, was deeply unpopular with the voters.
Musharraf, who stepped down as army chief last November after being re-elected to another five-year term, has seen his standing plummet as the country has faced a determined insurgency by the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and a deteriorating economy.
By association, his party suffered badly. The two main opposition parties ? the Pakistan Peoples Party and the Pakistan Muslim League-N of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif ? surged into the gap.
By early Monday night, crowds of Sharif supporters had already begun celebrating as they paraded through the streets of Rawalpindi, the garrison town just outside the capital, Islamabad. Riding on motorbikes and clinging onto the back of minivans, they played music and waved green flags of Sharif's party decorated with the party symbol, a tiger.
"The tiger has come!" shouted one man on a motorbike making a victory sign. "Long live Nawaz!"
From unofficial results the private news channel, Aaj Television, forecast that the Pakistan Peoples Party would win 110 seats in the 272-seat national assembly, with Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N taking 100 seats.
Musharraf's party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, was crushed, holding on to just 20 to 30 seats. Early results released by the state news agency, the Associated Press of Pakistan, also showed the Pakistan Peoples Party to be leading in the number of seats in the national assembly.
The Election Commission of Pakistan declared the elections free and fair and said the polling passed relatively peacefully, despite some irregularities and scattered violence. Ten people were killed and 70 injured in violence around the country, including one candidate who was shot in Lahore on the night before the vote, Pakistani news channels reported.
Fearful of violence and deterred by confusion at polling stations, voters did not turn out in large numbers. Yet fears from opposition parties that the government would attempt to rig the elections did not materialize, as the early losses showed.
Official results were not expected until Tuesday morning, but all the parties were already coming to terms with the anti-Musharraf trend in the voting.
Nosheen Saeed, information secretary of the women's wing of Musharraf's party, conceded the early losses. "Some big guns are going to lose," she said.
At the headquarters of Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, the minister of railways and a close friend of the president, his supporters sat gloomily in chairs under an awning, listening to the cheers of their opponents. "Q is finished," said Tahir Khan, 21, one of the party workers, referring to the pro-Musharraf party.
The party workers said Ahmed, who was among the ministers who lost their seats, was popular but had suffered from the overwhelming protest vote against Musharraf and his governing faction.
The results opened a host of new challenges for the Bush administration, which has been criticized in Congress and by Pakistan analysts for relying too heavily on Musharraf. Even as Musharraf's standing plummeted and the insurgency gained strength, senior Bush administration officials praised Musharraf as a valued partner in the effort against terrorism.
With Musharraf as both president and head of the Pakistani military ? a post he relinquished last November ? the administration poured about $1 billion a year in military assistance into Pakistan after 9/11.
After Musharraf stepped down from the army, the Bush administration still gave him unequivocal support. Last month, Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, Richard Boucher, told Congress he considered the Pakistani leader as indispensable to American interests.
Such fidelity to Musharraf often raised the hackles of Pakistanis, and the newspapers here were filled with editorials that expressed despair about Washington's close relationship with the unpopular leader.
Many educated Pakistanis said they were irritated that the Bush administration chose to ignore Musharraf's dismissal in November of the Supreme Court chief justice.
The big swing against the Pakistan Muslim League-Q party that supported Musharraf appeared to bear out the position of the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, Sen. Joseph Biden, Jr, who has been a critic of the administration's Pakistan policy.
On his arrival Sunday to observe the elections, Biden said: "I don't buy into the argument that Musharraf is the only one. We have to have more than just a Musharraf policy."
As a starting point for a new policy, Biden said that the United States needed to show Pakistanis that Washington was interested in more than the campaign on terror. "We have to give the vast majority of Pakistani people some reason to believe we are allies," Biden said. To that end, he would propose that economic development aid be tripled to $1.5 billion annually.
But Washington could take some comfort in the losses of the Islamic religious parties in the North West Frontier Province that abut the tribal areas where the Taliban and Al Qaeda have carved out bases.
The greatest blow for Musharraf came in the strong wave of support in Punjab province, the country's most populous, for Sharif, who has been a bitter rival since his government was overthrown by Musharraf in a military coup in 1999 and he was arrested and sent into exile.
He returned in November last year and although banned from running for parliament himself, has campaigned for his party on an openly anti-Musharraf agenda, calling for the president's resignation and for the reinstatement of the Chief Justice Chaudhry and other Supreme Court judges.
Underscoring the reversal for Musharraf was the downfall of the powerful Chaudhry family of Punjab province who had underwritten his political career by creating the political party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, for him.
"They myth is broken, it was a huge wave against Musharraf," said Athar Minallah, a lawyer involved in the anti-Musharraf lawyers' movement. "Right across the board his party was defeated, in the urban and rural areas. The margins are so big they couldn't have rigged it even if they tried."
A few hours after the size of the defeat became clear, the government eased up on the restrictions against, Aitzaz Ahsan, leader of the lawyers' movement that has opposed the president. .
Ahsan who has been under house arrest since last November when Musharraf imposed emergency rule for six weeks, found the phones in house were suddenly reconnected.
"Musharraf should be preparing a C-130 for Turkey," Ahsan said, referring to Musharraf's statements that he might retire to Turkey where he spent his childhood.
Two politicians close to Musharraf have said in the last week that the president was well aware of the drift in the country against him and they suggested that he would not remain in office if the new government was in direct opposition to him. "He does not have the fire in the belly for another fight," said one member of his party. He added that Musharraf was building a house for himself in Islamabad and would be ready soon to move.