Pakistan's ruling party conceded defeat on Tuesday after opposition parties routed allies of President Pervez Musharraf in parliamentary elections, winning enough seats to form a new government that could threaten the eight-year rule of America's close ally.
Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, head of the Pakistan Muslim League-Q party, said: "We accept the results with an open heart" and "will sit on opposition benches" in the new parliament.
Final results were not expected before Tuesday evening, but the election's outcome casts doubt on the political survival of Musharraf, whose popularity plummeted following his decisions late last year to impose emergency rule, purge the judiciary, jail political opponents and curtail press freedoms.
The private Geo TV network said the party of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and another group led by ex-Premier Nawaz Sharif had so far won 149 seats, more than half of the 272-seat National Assembly.
The pro-Musharraf party stood a distant third with 36 seats. A ream of party stalwarts and former Cabinet ministers lost in their constituencies.
"All the king's men, gone!" proclaimed a banner headline in the Daily Times . "Heavyweights knocked out," read The Dawn newspaper.
Musharraf has promised to work with whatever government emerges from the election. But the former general is hugely unpopular among the public, and opposition parties that have been catapulted into power are likely to find little reason to work with him - particularly since he no longer controls the powerful army.
Sharif has been especially outspoken in demanding that Musharraf be removed and that the Supreme Court justices whom the president sacked late last year be returned to their posts. Those judges were fired as they prepared to rule on whether Musharraf's re-election last October was constitutional.
With the support of smaller groups and independent candidates, the opposition could gain the two-thirds majority in parliament needed to impeach Musharraf, who angered many Pakistanis by allying the country with Washington in 2001 to fight Al-Qaida and the Taleban after the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States.
If the opposition falls short of enough votes to remove Musharraf, the new government could reinstate the Supreme Court justices and ask them to declare the October election invalid.
The spokesman for Sharif's party, Sadiq ul-Farooq, told reporters on Tuesday that Musharraf "should go." But he added that if the restored justices validate Musharraf's election, the opposition would accept the decision.
"We want to put Pakistan back on the track of democracy, constitution and rule of law, and the restoration of sacked judges is a must to achieve this goal," he said.
Musharraf at best faces the prospect of remaining in power with sharply diminished powers and facing a hostile public. Last year he stepped down as army chief, and his successor has pledged to remove the military from politics.
The PML-Q said it accepted the results, but Pervaiz Elahi, the party's president, noted that it had stood by Musharraf for five years.
"We respect him, and we are still with him," Elahi, the outgoing chief minister of Punjab province, told Geo TV .
The results could have far-reaching implications for the U.S, especially Pakistani military operations against Al-Qaida and Taleban-style fighters in border areas of the northwest. Sharif and others have called for dialogue with the fighters and have criticized military operations in the area because of their impact on civilians.
Afrasiab Khattak, a leading opposition politician from the northwest, said his Awami National Party did not believe "that a military solution will work," adding his group "will never support American forces coming here and operating."
In Karachi, the Pakistani stock market rose 2.15 per cent to 14,669.87 points and the rupee gained against the US dollar. Traders said the market was reacting positively because the election was generally peaceful.
A win by the opposition is likely to restore the public's faith in the political process and quell fears that the results would be rigged in favour of the pro-Musharraf forces.
Geo TV said unofficial tallies from 229 of the 268 National Assembly seats being contested showed Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party with 33.1 per cent and Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N party with 27.5 per cent. The pro-Musharraf PML-Q was third with 14.4 per cent.
The Election Commission had results for 124 seats, with Sharif's party holding 30 percent, Bhutto's party 26.6 per cent and the PML-Q 12.1 per cent.
Several close political allies of Musharraf were election casualties. The chairman of the ruling party, the foreign minister and railways minister were among those who lost seats in Punjab, the most populous province and a key electoral battleground.
Religious parties also fared badly, and were set to lose their control of the North West Frontier province gained in the last parliamentary elections in 2002, when they benefited from Pakistani anger over the US-led invasion to topple the Taleban in Afghanistan.
Güncelleme Tarihi: 20 Şubat 2008, 11:35