Pakistan's ruling party and the close allies of President Pervez Musharraf conceded defeat Tuesday in the nation's parliamentary elections.
The results could mean a change in the rule of the Islamic country and a key U.S. ally in the fight against terrorism.
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. The country has been under military rule for more than half of its 60-year history.
An election win by the opposition is likely to restore the public's faith in the political process. It will also prove to quell fears that the results would be rigged in favor of the pro-Musharraf party.
Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, head of the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, told AP Television News that "we accept the results with an open heart" and "will sit on opposition benches" in the new parliament."
What's Next for Musharraf?
"All the King's men, gone!" proclaimed a banner headline in the Daily Times. "Heavyweights knocked out," read the Dawn newspaper.
The political future of Musharraf is in doubt. He was re-elected to a five year term last October in what proved to be a controversial parliamentary vote.
The opposition could gain the two-thirds majority in parliament needed to impeach Musharraf. To do this, the opposition would need to garner the support of smaller groups as well as independent candidates.
Musharraf angered many Pakistanis when he chose to ally his country with the U.S. in 2001 to fight al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
Final Results Could Come Tuesday Night
Final results were not expected to be posted before Tuesday evening. However, the election's outcome may be to be a public verdict on Musharraf's rule. The president's popularity fell sharply when he decided late last year to impose emergency rule. Several other measures followed including purging the judiciary, the jailing of political opponents and trying to stop the flow of press information in and out of the country.
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 Pakistan Muslim League-Q party placed a distant third, winning only 33 seats. Some of the proven party members and even some former Cabinet ministers lost in their respective constituencies.
Musharraf has said he will work with the government that finally emerges from the election. But the former Army general is highly unpopular. The opposition parties that now find themselves in power will probably find little reason to work with him, especially since he no longer controls the military.
If the opposition finds itself short of the necessary votes to remove the president, the new government could then 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 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.
The PML-Q said it accepted the results, but Pervaiz Elahi, the party's president, noted that the party 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 on Tuesday.
The election results could have far-reaching implications for the U.S.-led war on terror, especially Pakistani military operations against al-Qaeda and Taliban-style militants in border areas of the northwest. Sharif and others have called for talks with the extremists 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 percent to 14,669.87 points and the rupee gained against the U.S. dollar. Traders said the market was reacting positively because the election was generally peaceful.
Source: Associated Press