CIVIL SOCIETY PAKISTAN

February 19, 2008

Pakistan’s Ruling Party Concedes Defeat -WASHINGTON POST

Filed under: ELECTIONS - 2008 — civilsocietypakistan @ 9:55 pm
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A Pakistani man and his son join fellow supporters of the political party of slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto after the closing of the polls in Karachi, Pakistan Monday Feb. 18, 2008. Pakistanis voted Monday for a new parliament in an election shadowed by fears of violence and questions about the political survival of President Pervez Musharraf. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
A Pakistani man and his son join fellow supporters
of the political party of slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto after the closing of the polls in Karachi, Pakistan Monday Feb. 18, 2008. Pakistanis voted Monday for a new parliament in an election shadowed by fears of violence and questions about the political survival of President Pervez Musharraf. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder) (David Guttenfelder – AP)
Supporters of Pakistan's Awami National Party celebrate the victory of their leaders in parliamentary elections, in Peshawar, Pakistan on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2008. Pakistan's ruling party conceded defeat Tuesday after opposition parties routed allies of President Pervez Musharraf in parliamentary elections that could threaten the rule of America's close ally in the war on terror. (AP Photo/Mohammad Zubair)
Supporters of Pakistan’s Awami National Party celebrate the victory of their leaders in parliamentary elections, in Peshawar, Pakistan on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2008. Pakistan’s ruling party conceded defeat Tuesday after opposition parties routed allies of President Pervez Musharraf in parliamentary elections that could threaten the rule of America’s close ally in the war on terror. (AP Photo/Mohammad Zubair) (Mohammad Zubair – AP)
Pakistani tribal people block Peshawar Kabul Road leading to Afghanistan, to protest election results in Pakistan's tribal area of Khyber close to the Afghan border on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2008. Pakistan's ruling party conceded defeat Tuesday after opposition parties routed allies of President Pervez Musharraf in parliamentary elections that could threaten the rule of America's close ally in the war on terror. (AP Photo/B.K.Bangash)
Pakistani tribal people block Peshawar Kabul Road leading to Afghanistan, to protest election results in Pakistan’s tribal area of Khyber close to the Afghan border on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2008. Pakistan’s ruling party conceded defeat Tuesday after opposition parties routed allies of President Pervez Musharraf in parliamentary elections that could threaten the rule of America’s close ally in the war on terror. (AP Photo/B.K.Bangash) (B.k.bangash – AP)
Pakistani tribal people block the Peshawar-Kabul road to protest the election result against their candidate in Pakistan's tribal area of Khyber, which is close to Afghanistan border on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2008. Pakistan's ruling party conceded defeat Tuesday after opposition parties routed allies of President Pervez Musharraf in parliamentary elections that could threaten the rule of America's close ally in the war on terror. (AP Photo/B.K.Bangash)
Pakistani tribal people block the Peshawar-Kabul road to protest the election result against their candidate in Pakistan’s tribal area of Khyber, which is close to Afghanistan border on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2008. Pakistan’s ruling party conceded defeat Tuesday after opposition parties routed allies of President Pervez Musharraf in parliamentary elections that could threaten the rule of America’s close ally in the war on terror. (AP Photo/B.K.Bangash) (B.k.bangash – AP)
A Pakistani police officer holds his weapon as a worker tears electoral posters down in Lahore, Pakistan on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2008. 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. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
A Pakistani police officer holds his weapon as a worker tears electoral posters down in Lahore, Pakistan on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2008. 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. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti) (Emilio Morenatti – AP)
Supporters of a losing political candidate scuffle during a protest outside the government administrator's office in Peshawar, Pakistan on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2008. Pakistan's ruling party conceded defeat Tuesday after opposition parties routed allies of President Pervez Musharraf in parliamentary elections that could threaten the rule of America's close ally in the war on terror. (AP Photo/Mohammad Zubair)
Supporters of a losing political candidate scuffle du
ring a protest outside the government administrator’s office in Peshawar, Pakistan on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2008. Pakistan’s ruling party conceded defeat Tuesday after opposition parties routed allies of President Pervez Musharraf in parliamentary elections that could threaten the rule of America’s close ally in the war on terror. (AP Photo/Mohammad Zubair) (Mohammad Zubair – AP)
   

   

Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 19, 2008; 11:37 AM

LAHORE, Pakistan, Feb. 19 — Pakistan’s pro-government party conceded defeat Tuesday in historic parliamentary elections, as opposition leaders called for President Pervez Musharraf to step down after the resounding public verdict against his eight years as military ruler.

With official election returns nearly complete from Monday’s voting, the two major opposition parties had won at least 153 seats in the 272-member National Assembly, while the pro-government Pakistan Muslim League–Q faction had won only 38.
Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, who heads the pro-Musharraf PML–Q, said his party would “accept the results with an open heart,” and plans to “sit on the opposition benches” in the new Parliament.The Pakistan People’s Party, led by former prime minister Benazir Bhutto before her assassination in December, appeared to capture the most seats, with 87. Bhutto’s husband, who took over the party after her death, said the PPP would look to build a coalition among opposition groups.

“For now, the decision of the party is that we are not interested in any of those people who are part and parcel of the last government,” Asif Ali Zardari said in Islamabad, wire services reported.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Nicole Thompson told the Associated Press that the United States considers the vote “an important step on the path towards an elected, civilian democracy,” and was “pleased” that the vote had taken place after months of violence and controversy leading up to it.

The vote is a sharp rebuke for Musharraf, a top U.S. ally who had fallen far out of favor with voters. The country’s opposition groups outpaced other parties by wide margins in several key provinces, including Punjab, home to more than half of this country’s 80 million eligible voters.

Hussain, along with several other prominent party leaders allied with Musharraf, lost their seats in Parliament, according to Pakistan’s Dawn News, an English-language television station.

In a televised address early Monday, Musharraf, who had promised to hold “free, fair and transparent” elections, pledged to abide by the results.

“This is the voice of the nation,” he said on state-run Pakistan Television. “Everyone should accept the results. That includes myself.”

Sporadic reports of clashes at polling stations and several bombings across Pakistan appeared to have kept many voters at home, particularly in urban areas. Opposition parties and election observers cited some instances of rigging and voter intimidation.

Pakistan has experienced widespread tumult since last year, when huge protests erupted following Musharraf’s decision to fire the chief justice of the Supreme Court and place him and several other jurists under house arrest. In the following months, public frustration grew over increasing insurgent violence, rising consumer prices and corruption. In December, following the assassination of Bhutto, the president’s popularity fell to an all-time low.

 

Monday’s elections were widely seen as a referendum on Musharraf. Critics alleged that, because the president had been weakened, his government would attempt to manipulate the results to ensure his allies remained in power. A hostile parliament could move to impeach Musharraf, who has held power since a 1999 coup.

Rana Muhammad Riaz, 50, an engineering administrator who cast his vote in Rawalpindi, shrugged off suggestions that rigging would affect the outcome.”I’m hopeful that we will have a democracy,” he said. “Right now we have democracy, but it is not a complete democracy.”

In the Punjab city of Lahore, the nation’s cultural hub and second-largest city, polling was generally orderly, but turnout was extremely low. A provincial assembly candidate was killed Sunday night, casting a pall on voting throughout the city.

Across Lahore, a stronghold of the Pakistan Muslim League faction headed by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, early returns showed his party to be winning by a landslide, with the opposition Pakistan People’s Party coming in a distant second and Musharraf’s party trailing further behind.

But a majority of voters, it appeared, decided not to go to the polls at all. By 1 p.m., at one polling station in Lahore’s densely populated Old City, only 250 out of 1,500 registered voters had cast their ballots. Similar low turnouts were reported at many other stations.

“This is due to the uncertain atmosphere, the threat of terrorism,” said Mohammed Badwa, an economics professor who served as the manager of one polling station. “The procedure is transparent and orderly inside, but the people are very much afraid of violence outside.”

Lahore has been at the epicenter of protests by Pakistan’s lawyers, who took to the streets by the thousands in November following Musharraf’s decision to fire the Supreme Court chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, and detain the president of the Supreme Court bar association, Aitzaz Ahsan, both of whom had been critical of the government.

Several opposition politicians and groups called for the chief justice’s reinstatement. Most notable among them was Sharif. Although Sharif is not running for office, his stance on the judiciary appeared to garner the party widespread support at the polls.

“He espoused very clearly and very stridently the cause of the chief justice,” said Ahsan, who spoke by phone from his home in Lahore. “This was an election about Pervez Musharraf. I think that had the Pakistan People’s Party adopted the same position from the outset, I think it would have swept the polls, and the national grief with Bhutto’s assassination would have translated into a strong position, and nothing would have stopped them.”

Sherry Rehman, chief spokeswoman for the Pakistan People’s Party, said that it was too early to predict the outcome and that Bhutto’s party had a strong showing in several areas of the country, including the party’s traditional stronghold of Sindh province, Bhutto’s ancestral home. Rehman said the party had received hundreds of complaints from voters about rigging at the polls, adding that a delay in delivering ballots to officials charged with counting the vote was especially troubling.

“We’re not getting the results. They have been delayed, which in Pakistan means they will be changed,” Rehman said.


A Western election observer who spent the day touring polling stations near the northwestern city of Peshawar reported witnessing violence and irregularities. The observer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said problems were particularly rife at several women’s polling stations.

“The most egregious irregularities we saw were at the women’s polling stations. There were missing voters’ lists, misuse of ballot boxes, intimidation of voters,” the observer said. “These were in the most secure areas and more affluent areas. I mean, if this was happening here, I could just imagine how bad it must have been in some of the rural areas.”In Pakistan’s restive tribal areas, local officials reported that nine security officials were believed to have been kidnapped in the town of Baka Khel in North Waziristan. Police launched a search for them, but there was no immediate word on their whereabouts.

Many polling stations across the northwest were all but deserted during the first half of the day. Problems were compounded as reports of violence around the country began to trickle in. Local news media and several local officials said three explosions occurred in the northwest Swat Valley. The once-serene valley has been roiled in the past year by dozens of skirmishes between Taliban fighters and government troops.

In the densely populated military enclave of Rawalpindi, the flow of voters at one polling station was snarled for more than an hour after election officials opened the polls late.

“I arrived about an hour ago, and I have been unable to vote because they did not open the polls, and the election officials are saying that they do not have the list with my name on it,” said Hafiz ur-Rehman, a supporter of the Pakistan People’s Party.

Tempers ran high when election officials at the station said they could not find a list containing the names of 324 voters. “It’s very concerning to me, because it’s our right to cast our vote. We are not servants; we are voters,” said Salehain Quereshi, a local council member and People’s Party supporter who said election officials refused to record his complaints.

Confusion over the missing voter rolls also incensed some of Musharraf’s backers at the station. Khanja Muhammad Khursid Alam shook his head in disgust as he watched an election worker struggle to find another voter’s name.

“They are untrained people. They don’t know how to work in polling stations. People come out and want to vote,” said Alam, a polling representative and member of Musharraf’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Q.

Official election results are expected to be tallied and released before the end of the week.

Rondeaux reported from Islamabad. Special correspondents Imtiaz Ali in Peshawar and Shahzad Khurram in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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