ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – A top opposition leader called Tuesday on President Pervez Musharraf to step aside after his ruling party conceded defeat in parliamentary elections. The vote was also a slap to Islamist parties, which lost control of a province where Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters have sought refuge.
With counting from Monday's election nearly complete, the two main opposition parties won a total of 154 of the 268 contested seats, according to the Election Commission.
The pro-Musharraf party trailed with 39 seats, and the group's leader acknowledged the loss.
"We accept the election results, and will sit on opposition benches," Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, chairman of the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, told AP Television News. "We are accepting the results with grace and open heart."
Although final official results were not expected until Wednesday, opposition parties were confident of victory and began mapping plans for a new government and a possible showdown with Musharraf.
Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister and leader of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-N, recalled statements by Musharraf last year that he would step down only if he lost the support of the Pakistani people.
"He has closed his eyes. He has said before that he would go when the people want him to do so and now the people have given their verdict," Sharif told reporters in Lahore.
The Pakistan People's Party of assassinated ex-prime minister Benazir Bhutto was leading with 86 seats and was likely to spearhead the new government in partnership with other opposition groups.
Bhutto's husband, Asif Ali Zardari, told reporters Tuesday he would meet soon with Sharif and other opposition leaders "to form a government of national unity." Zardari made clear he would not include politicians who had been allied with Musharraf.
"We will seek support from democratic forces to form the government, but we are not interested in any of those people who are part and parcel of the previous government," Zardari said.
But Zardari carefully avoided an unequivocal statement about whether Musharraf should remain in power. The two main opposition parties were unlikely to finish with two-thirds of the seats required to impeach the president.
Musharraf's spokesman, Rashid Quereshi, rejected suggestions the Pakistani president step down. Sen. John Kerry, who met Tuesday with Musharraf along with other U.S. lawmakers, said the Pakistani leader expressed willingness to work with the new government.
But the former general is so unpopular among the Pakistani public that opposition parties are likely to find little reason to work with him — particularly since he no longer controls the powerful army.
At best, Musharraf faces the prospect of remaining in power with sharply diminished powers even if the opposition fails to muster the two-thirds support in parliament to impeach him. Constitutionally, the president is the head of state and nominally the commander in chief of the armed forces. He also has the power to dissolve parliament.
But the prime minister runs the government on a day-to-day basis. With a strong electoral mandate, the new prime minister would doubtless command greater authority than those who served under Musharraf's military rule.
The White House, which has backed Musharraf because of his support for the war against terror, declined to comment until the final results were announced. But a State Department spokeswoman, Nicole Thompson, called the election "an important step on the path towards an elected, civilian democracy."
Sen. Joseph Biden, a Democrat who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and one of several U.S. lawmakers who observed the election, said the results mean the United States can shift its Pakistan policy.
"This is an opportunity for us to move from a policy that has been focused on a personality to one based on an entire people," Biden said, adding that Washington should encourage more deeply rooted democracy in Pakistan.
Pakistani analysts said the results pointed to broad support for centrist, democratic parties at the expense of patronage politicians and Islamist movements.
The pro-Taliban Jamiat-e-Ulema party won only three seats in the national parliament. And a coalition of Islamist religious parties was poised to lose control of the regional administration in the North West Frontier Province, which it won in the 2002 elections.
Unofficial returns showed the secular Awami National Party had won 31 of the 96 contested seats in the provincial assembly, with the religious United Action Forum taking only nine seats.
Awami vice chairman Haji Ghulan Ahmad Balor said his group would form a governing coalition with other "like-minded" factions.
Residents of the province had complained the Islamist government failed to provide public services and was unable to prevent foreign fighters from crossing the border from Afghanistan.