Opposition parties seem to have dealt a crushing blow to the ruling party in Pakistan, winning enough seats to threaten the rule of President Pervez Musharraf.
The chairman of the pro-Musharraf party Pakistan Muslim League-Q, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, conceded defeat on Tuesday, as the initial results began to show that his party was trailing third. "We accept the results with an open heart," he told the Associated Press, adding "we will sit on the opposition benches."
The party of the slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto was in the lead after Monday's vote, but former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's party was doing unexpectedly well after he took a tougher line on President Musharraf.
The private GEO TV network said the two opposition parties had so far won 139 seats, while the PML-Q was trailing with 33 seats. Many ministers and former ministers seem to have lost their seats, although final results are not expected until Tuesday evening.
Although Musharraf did not contest the election himself, it has revealed just how unpopular he has become since he imposed emergency rule last year. During the period of emergency rule, Musharraf purged the judiciary and curtailed press freedoms.
If the opposition parties manage to win two-thirds of the seats in the National Assembly, they could push for the impeachment of the man who is one of the United States' closest allies in the war on terror. If Musharraf manages to hold onto power, he will have to deal with a hostile parliament, led by parties whose rulers had been in exile for most of his eight-year rule.
Sharif left Pakistan a year after being ousted by Musharraf in a coup, while Bhutto had spent eight years abroad to avoid corruption charges, before returning late last year. Both their parties are bitter rivals. Bhutto's widower, Asif Ali Zardari, is now co-chairman of her Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and he has made no specific commitment to a coalition with Sharif.
Sharif has called for dialogue with the Islamic radicals and has criticized military operations in the tribal areas due to their impact on civilians.
Turnout on Monday was extremely low -- just 35 percent -- with many put off by fears of violence. However the day passed off relatively peaceful with no bomb attacks, although 25 people died in election-related violence.
Reflecting on the election in their Tuesday editions, the German press is cautiously optimistic that it marks a tiny step on the path toward true democracy.
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"This election is not a great leap forward for democracy, but at most a tiny step. Most voters stayed at home out of fears of attacks."
"The people in Pakistan are not to be envied. They have hardly any democratic alternatives. Although it is true that lawyers and intellectuals have been demonstrating for months against the unpopular president, the protests have not produced a political dynamic -- partly because Musharraf has dealt with them severely. The parties function like dynasties. A few families have all the say and consider power to be a type of inheritance. One of the many Pakistani military rulers once said that parliamentary democracy did not suit the country or its people. That was wrong then, and still is today. It is the elite who do not suit the people. But this parliamentary election offers little hope that they will be replaced."
The Financial Times Deutschland writes:
"Pakistan voted, and in relatively peaceful circumstances. That alone won't ease the crisis in the country. But it is far more than could have been expected up until recently after the emergency rule imposed by President Pervez Musharraf … and the murder of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto by radical Islamists."
"Pakistani politics is finally gaining something like a legitimate basis. The era of power games between the dictator Musharraf and the prominent opposition leaders is over. ... After years of paralysis the democracy movement in Pakistan has received a new boost."
"The Islamists don't seem to have managed to make significant gains. That is also an important signal: The widespread concern that democratic elections in the Islamic world only bring radicals to power -- like Hamas in the Palestinian elections -- has been disproved in, of all places, instable Pakistan, a country plagued by terrorism.
"Musharraf must end his dictatorship. This election is a small step on the long path toward achieving this."
-- Siobhán Dowling, 11:50 a.m. CET
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