According to early returns, the vote may spawn a divided legislature that could undermine the legitimacy Musharraf hoped to gain by holding elections. The results, experts said, could force him to reevaluate his allegiance with the United States and his government’s crack down on Islamic extremists.
Musharraf, who seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999, currently maintains dictatorial powers, including the right to dissolve Parliament under constitutional amendments he decreed last spring.
International election observers said the polling was “well organized and for the most part transparent,” although seven people were killed in sporadic violence. Leading up to election day, Musharraf opponents accused the president of rigging the vote.
There were 272 contested seats in the National Assembly, 60 seats set aside for women and 10 for non-Muslim minorities, making a total of 342.
According to the Pakistan Election Commission, the Mutahidda Majlis-a-Amal (MMA), a hard-line Islamic coalition of religious parties opposed to the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan, won about 40 seats, as did the Pakistan People’s Party, headed by exiled former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, a fierce Musharraf critic. Supporters of exiled former Premier Nawaz Sharif also made gains.
According to press reports, the Pakistan Muslim League Quaid-e-Azam, seen as a pro-Musharraf party, took between 54 and 58 seats — the largest win by a single party, but not enough to make a majority.
However, many of the candidates, even those who support the U.S. campaign against terrorism, hope to reverse the constitutional amendments Musharraf has enacted, potentially setting up a conflict between civilian politicians and Musharraf’s military-based government.
Many Pakistani political analysts were stunned by the strong show of support for fundamentalist parties, especially among the middle classes and in urban areas such as the capital, Islamabad.
“The anger against what has happened in Afghanistan has been turned into electoral support for the MMA,” Zafarullah Khan, a Pakistani political analyst, told the New York Times. “To me, the biggest surprise was the MMA win in Islamabad.”
At the local level, a strong showing for religious parties in the North-West Frontier Province could complicate American-led efforts to capture al-Qaida and Taliban members crossing the border from Afghanistan. Those efforts are likely to continue, but would pit Musharraf against the province’s democratically elected government.
In Washington, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said the election was “an important milestone in Pakistan’s ongoing transition to democracy.”
“We are committed,” Fleischer said, “to remaining engaged with Pakistan throughout this transition process.”