ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistanis celebrated a return to civilian rule Tuesday in National Assembly elections that overwhelmingly endorsed opposition parties and dealt a devastating defeat to President Pervez Musharraf.
The Pakistan Peoples Party, led by Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, looked to be the lead party in the assembly. Close behind was the Pakistan Muslim League breakaway branch headed by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Unofficial results gave Bhutto's party at least 87 seats and Sharif's party at least 66, but through a complex formula that distributes seats for women and minorities proportionally, the two parties should easily achieve a majority in the 342-seat assembly.
Musharraf, who came to power by overthrowing Sharif in a military coup in 1999 and clung to his position as army chief of staff until only two months ago, is likely to count on as few as 40 seats in the hands of his political allies in the Muslim League, according to projections by Pakistani news media.
The Bush administration, reacting to the results, underlined its hope to continue working with the discredited Musharraf, whom President Bush personally endorsed as a partner in the "war on terror." "We're looking forward to working with President Musharraf, as well as what the next — whatever next Pakistani government emerges from this election," said Sean McCormick, the State Department spokesman.
Musharraf accepted the defeat in good grace, according to a bipartisan delegation of U.S. senators, who saw him early Tuesday.
The results were "clear. We lost," Musharraf told the senators, recounted Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden, D-Del. "He seemed like reality had set in."
"I had the impression that he is prepared to retire to being president, which is largely a ceremonial role," but that his withdrawal "will depend on how the coalition government is formed and how he is treated . . . personally," Biden said in an interview with McClatchy.
Biden was accompanied by Sens. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., and John Kerry, D-Mass.
The leaders of the victorious opposition parties staked out opening positions Tuesday in what could be tough bargaining on forming a coalition to govern the nuclear-armed country as it reels from a growing Islamic insurgency, pervasive poverty, soaring prices, energy shortages and endemic corruption.
Musharraf apparently lost votes around the country because of intense anger over his authoritarian rule, his failure to contain insurgency-related violence and his cooperation with the Bush administration's war on terrorism.
Those sentiments could compel the new government to loosen its counterterrorism collaboration with the United States, which has pushed Musharraf to intensify military operations against al Qaida and Islamic insurgents in the tribal regions bordering Afghanistan, which have claimed an unknown number of civilian casualties.
The Islamist political parties also lost ground in the elections, capturing only five seats in the National Assembly, down from 57, according to unofficial results. Religious parties lost control of the assembly in the North West Frontier Province as well, scoring only nine seats, down from 67, in the 96-seat body.
Although voters appeared to repudiate Musharraf, at least one prominent political analyst warned that the president couldn't be trusted to withdraw from politics.
Musharraf has a record of reneging on promises since he seized power, including one to resign as army chief by the end of 2006, which he didn't do until last December and then under intense U.S. pressure, analyst Talat Massoud said.
"I doubt he (Musharraf) will do what he says," said Massoud, himself a former army general. "He never sticks to his position. Everything he changes every day and every moment."
The elections were to have been on Jan. 8, but they were postponed after Bhutto was assassinated allegedly on orders of an Islamic militant leader.
Unofficial results tabulated by private television channels and partial official returns showed no party winning a majority in the National Assembly or in the four provincial assemblies, requiring the formation of coalitions, some of which could prove short-lived.
Zardari, who assumed the Pakistan Peoples Party leadership after the December assassination of his wife, and Sharif, the leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-N, agreed to meet Thursday to discuss forming a coalition government.
But the two offered different approaches to dealing with Musharraf and the futures of dozens of judges — including the head of the Supreme Court — whom the president purged last year to prevent them from blocking him from implementing constitutional changes of doubtful legality extending his term by five years.
The purge ignited violent protests led by lawyers, and Musharraf responded in November by muzzling the independent media, detaining thousands of opponents, suspending the constitution and declaring a state of emergency.
Speaking at a packed Islamabad news conference, Zardari remained silent on what he thought should happen with Musharraf. He said that the new National Assembly should decide whether the judges should be reinstated.
Sharif, however, reiterated his demands for Musharraf's resignation and the immediate reinstatement of the judges, including Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry.
"The people . . . have given a verdict," Sharif said in Lahore. "It is not being understood by Mr. Musharraf. He had closed his eyes. He would say when the people would want, I would go. Today the people have said what they want."
Reinstating the judges would risk reigniting the political crisis that the national elections were intended to defuse. Once returned to his position, Chaudhry, who's been under house arrest since November, almost certainly would overturn the amendments that Musharraf made to the constitution extending his term and giving himself legal immunity from prosecution.
"If the judges are restored right away, then obviously Musharraf can't stay for one day," Massoud said.