ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, apparently handed a huge defeat in elections for his country’s national assembly, accepts the results and may be willing to assume a largely ceremonial role, Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., said Tuesday.
"The results are clear, we lost. The outcome isn’t going to change,’ ” Biden quoted Musharraf as telling a delegation of three American senators that included Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. “I’ve known him for a long time . . . He seemed like reality had set in.”
Biden told McClatchy that he believed that Musharraf, who assumed power in a military coup in 1999, would ask one of his opponents to form a new government. Whether he would then step into the background “will depend on how the coalition government is formed and how he is treated personally.”
Musharraf made no public statement about the elections, whose final results were not expected till Tuesday night or Wednesday. But unofficial tallies by Pakistani newspapers and television channels and partial official returns showed the party that has backed Musharraf, the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, heading for massive defeat.
A half dozen of its heavyweight leaders lost their races and projections showed it might win as few as 45 of the contested seats in the 342-member national assembly. The Pakistan Peoples Party of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was likely to win at least 110 seats, and the Pakistan Muslim League-N faction, whose leader, Nawaz Sharif, was overthrown by Musharraf, appeared likely to win at least 100. The remaining seats will be apportioned according to the number of votes each party receives. Such an outcome would leave Musharraf, hailed by the Bush administration as an "indispensable" ally in its war against al Qaida and radical Islam, seriously weakened.
Musharraf could be forced to bend to widespread demands for less cooperation with the United States, which has pushed him to step up military operations against al Qaida and Islamic insurgents that have enflamed the guerrilla war and claimed large numbers of civilian casualties in the remote tribal region bordering Afghanistan.
Many people in this conservative Muslim nation regard Musharraf as a U.S. puppet. They point to U.S. support for Israel, the invasion of Iraq, the U.S. confrontation with Iran, and the abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and at the detention center for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay as proof that the Bush administration is waging "a war against Islam."
It would take a two-thirds majority of a joint session of the assembly and Pakistan's senate to impeach Musharraf or overturn a constitutional amendment allowing him to dismiss the parliament. The senate remains under the control of Musharraf supporters.
Sharif, who was deposed by Musharraf in a coup eight years ago, has vowed to impeach Musharraf. But Bhutto's widower, Asif Ali Zardari, who assumed the PPP's leadership after her death, has refused to commit himself to ousting the former army general.
The elections had been scheduled for Jan. 8, but were postponed until Monday after Bhutto's Dec. 27 assassination in a suicide bombing attack that was blamed on Islamic militants.
Musharraf's Pakistan Muslim League-Q appeared to be winning in Baluchistan, Pakistan's least developed province, which is reeling from violence by Islamic extremists and a low-key tribal insurgency.
But with unofficial results projecting huge wins for the Pakistan Peoples Party and the Pakistan Muslim League-N, the parties' supporters staged noisy all-night celebrations in the streets of major cities around the country.
Some PPP officials felt their margin of victory should have been even greater.
"We are really concerned as to what happened at the polling stations," Farhattullah Barber, the Peoples Party's chief spokesman, told McClatchy. He said the party suspected widespread vote rigging, despite the seeming Musharraf defeat and that party leaders would meet later Tuesday to review the results.
"What our response will be we will decide," he said.
Musharraf had commanded considerable support until last year from a public that deeply respected the army and was tired of the massive corruption that had been associated with the political parties for decades.
But his support began sliding after he purged independent judges, detained thousands of critics and arbitrarily amended the constitution to extend his grip on power by five years while he was still army chief. He resigned the position in December under intense U.S. pressure.
Musharraf's popularity also plunged after the army attacked a militant-led mosque in Islamabad. killing women and children in the assault. The country's Islamic insurgency intensified, accompanied by an upsurge in suicide bombings.
Musharraf and the Pakistan Muslim League-Q were also widely criticized for failing to arrest inflation and end food and power shortages in a country where most of the 165 million people struggle to live below the poverty line. Many Pakistanis also believe the government was complicit in Bhutto's assassination.
Turnout appeared to have been moderate to low across the country, suppressed by fears of major terrorist violence and alienation from a political system that is riddled with corruption and has consistently failed to deliver on promises of a better life.
"It's a slow turnout," said Shaista Tariq, the chief official at a polling station opposite the park in the military headquarters city of Rawalpindi where Bhutto was assassinated. "Maybe people are afraid. Maybe people don't like any of the parties and don't trust them."
The turnout seemed especially low in the violent North West Frontier Province, which borders the tribal region where the Islamic guerrilla war is intensifying and where Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding after escaping the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan.
"In previous elections, many people were lined up when the polls opened," remarked Imtiaz Begun, who was overseeing a polling station in the provincial capital of Peshawar where only a few ballots had been cast after an hour of voting. "This situation is different. People are scared."
More than 500,000 soldiers, paramilitary troops and police were deployed across the country following a campaign marred by a surge in suicide bombings that killed hundreds of people, including Bhutto.
But violence was comparatively low.
"I think that by and large, it has been a very, very peaceful election and blessedly enough, there has been no act of terrorism," said Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema.
"What we're pretty much hearing from our people around the country is that the actual voting went very peacefully, normally in terms of procedures, moving in an orderly way," said Jim Moody, a former Democratic congressman from Wisconsin who led a 40-member observer team from the United States.
Moody said that while his delegation would not complete its analysis for several days, there were only minor irregularities and violence in the constituencies visited by his team members.
Casting his ballot in Rawalpindi, where he still lives in the official residence of the army chief, Musharraf said he was ready to work with whoever emerges as the winner.
"The politics of confrontation must give way to a policy of reconciliation; not in anyone's personal interests, but in Pakistan's interest," he said, according to the state-run Associated Press of Pakistan
"Those winning should show humility and those losing should show grace," he said.
Opposition leaders have charged that balloting would be massively rigged in favor of the Pakistan Muslim League-Q.
There was extensive evidence, however, that the party sought to influence the outcome in the weeks before voting through its district administrators, particularly in Punjab Province, in violation of election laws that the pro-Musharraf federal election commission is accused of failing to enforce.
The administrators have been giving away jobs, announcing new development schemes, using the police to intimidate voters, openly campaigning for candidates and providing them with cars and offices, according to experts and opposition officials.