ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Opposition parties dealt a crushing electoral blow to allies of President Pervez Musharraf, a private TV network reported Tuesday, winning enough seats to form a new government that could threaten the eight-year rule of America's close ally in its war on terror.
The party of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was in the lead in Monday's parliamentary vote, with ex-Premier Nawaz Sharif — who was toppled in Musharraf's 1999 coup and has emerged as his fiercest critic — running a close second.
The private Geo TV network said the two parties had so far won 139 seats, more than half of the 272-seat National Assembly.
The pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League-Q party was a distant third with 33 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.
Final results were not expected before Tuesday evening, but the election's outcome appeared to be a stinging public verdict on Musharraf, whose popularity plummeted following his decisions late last year to impose emergency rule, purge the judiciary, jail political opponents and curtail press freedoms.
With the support of smaller groups and independent candidates, the opposition could gain the two-thirds majority in parliament needed to impeach the president, who also angered many Pakistanis by allying the country with Washington in 2001 to fight Al Qaeda and the Taliban after the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States.
The PML-Q said it accepted the results, but party President Pervaiz Elahi stopped short of conceding defeat before the returns were more complete.
"We happily accept the verdict of the people," Elahi, the outgoing chief minister of Punjab province, told Geo TV on Tuesday.
"If our opponents had faced the same situation at a time when 60 percent of the results are still to come, they might have started talking about rigging, and we are not doing it ... we have been sitting on opposition benches in the past, and we can do it now as well."
He said the PML-Q had elected Musharraf for five years. "We respect him, and we are still with him," he said.
Sharif has been outspoken in demanding that Musharraf be removed and that Supreme Court justices whom the president sacked late last year be returned to their posts.
The spokesman for Sharif's party, Saqiq ul-Farooq, told reporters Tuesday that Musharraf "should go." But he added that if the restored justices validate Musharraf's October election to a new term, 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.
Although fear and apathy kept millions of voters at home Monday, the elections for national and provincial assemblies were a major step toward democracy in Pakistan, which has been under military rule for the past eight years under Musharraf and for over half of its 60-year history.
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 favor of the pro-Musharraf forces.
Islamic militant violence scarred the campaign, most notably the Dec. 27 assassination of charismatic opposition leader Bhutto, but polling day was spared such an attack. The government, however, confirmed 24 election-related deaths in clashes between political parties.
About 18 hours after vote-counting began, 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 percent and Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N party with 27.5 percent. The pro-Musharraf PML-Q was third with 14.4 percent.
Contests in four assembly seats have been delayed for various reasons, including the death of candidates during the campaign.
The Election Commission had results for 124 seats, with Sharif's party holding 30 percent, Bhutto's party 26.6 percent and the PML-Q 12.1 percent.
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.
Musharraf, who was not on the ballot, has said a strong, democratically elected government is needed to fight a rise in Islamic militancy, and the retired army general pledged Monday to work with the new government regardless of which party wins.
"I will give them full cooperation as president, whatever is my role," he said.
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 U.S.-led invasion to topple the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The U.S. government, Musharraf's strongest international backer, was anxious for a credible election to shore up democratic forces at a time of mounting concern over political unrest in the nuclear-armed nation and a growing Al Qaeda and Taliban presence in the northwest.
Despite the stakes, it appeared most of the country's 81 million voters stayed home — either out of fear of extremist attacks or lack of enthusiasm for the candidates, many of whom waged lackluster campaigns.
Sarwar Bari of the nonprofit Free and Fair Elections Network said reports from his group's 20,000 election observers indicated voter turnout was about 35 percent. That would be the same as in the 1997 election — the lowest in Pakistan's history.
Bhutto's party had hoped to ride a public wave of sympathy after she was killed in a gun and suicide bomb attack but it appeared Sharif's tougher line against Musharraf also struck a chord with voters.
Bhutto had negotiated with Musharraf before she returned from exile in October, and her widowed husband Asif Ali Zardari, who now leads her party, has left open the possibility of working with the U.S.-backed leader.