Musharraf's Party Takes Pounding in Election

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Pakistanis dealt a crushing blow to President Pervez Musharraf in parliamentary elections Monday, raising questions about the future of the U.S. ally in the war on terror. Early returns indicate that the opposition parties of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif have won enough to command a majority.

Blow to Musharraf May Usher In New Coalition

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Pakistan's opposition parties said Tuesday they would try to form a coalition government after voters dealt President Pervez Musharraf's ruling party a resounding defeat at the polls.

The Pakistan Peoples Party of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto emerged from Monday's election as the largest party in the 342-seat National Assembly, although it failed to win an outright majority.

The results cast doubt on the political future of Musharraf, a former general who seized power in a 1999 coup. He was re-elected to a five-year term last October, in a parliamentary ballot that sparked widespread protest.

Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto's widower and head of the PPP, said the party had the right to form a coalition government, adding there would be no place in it for the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League (PML).

"As the largest political force of the country, we demand that we be allowed to make the government," he told a news conference in Islamabad.

Zardari, who took over the leadership of the PPP after Bhutto's death, said he would try to persuade Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister Musharraf overthrew, to join a coalition.

Speaking at a news conference in Lahore, Sharif urged Musharraf to accept his defeat.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Washington will continue to work with Musharraf and whatever government emerges to support the U.S. fight against violent Islamic extremism.

Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who was speaking in Pakistan, said the results should encourage the U.S. to shift its policy away from supporting one person, Musharraf, to a broader-based approach.

The private Geo TV network said the PPP and another group led by Sharif had so far won 153 seats, more than half of the 272-seat National Assembly.

Musharraf's party was a distant third with 38 seats. A raft of party stalwarts and former Cabinet ministers lost in their constituencies.

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.

While Musharraf has promised to work with any new government, he is hugely unpopular and his rivals are unlikely to be in any hurry to work with him. At best, he faces the prospect of remaining president with sharply diminished powers and facing a public hostile to him.

U.S. Could Lose 'Indispensable Ally' in Pakistan

Pres. Pervez Musharraf i

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf gives a speech at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in central London, Jan. 25, 2008. AP Photo/Alessia Pierdomenico, Pool hide caption

itoggle caption AP Photo/Alessia Pierdomenico, Pool
Pres. Pervez Musharraf

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf gives a speech at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in central London, Jan. 25, 2008.

AP Photo/Alessia Pierdomenico, Pool

Pakistan is preparing for parliamentary elections on Monday that could have far-reaching implications for the United States and the struggle against terrorist groups.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf won't face the voters directly — his re-election was confirmed in November, after a vote that his opponents say was blatantly rigged by the government.

Instead, Musharraf may find himself saddled with a parliament that could challenge his decade-long rule or even try to impeach him.

The Bush administration has hailed Musharraf as a partner ever since he agreed to support the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan. As recently as November, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte called Musharraf an "indispensable ally" in the struggle against terrorism.

At the same time, though, President Bush urged Musharraf, who was then Pakistan's Army chief, to quit the military and hold parliamentary elections. Those elections were set for early January, but postponed amid the turbulence that swept the country after the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December.

One question now is whether Monday's election will be seen as legitimate, amid allegations that the government has been working to rig the outcome by limiting who can run, who can vote and who will supervise the vote count once the balloting is over.

"The U.S. made a big mistake by not insisting that Musharraf and his government accept a massive deployment of international observers," says Zia Mian, at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Mian says the Bush administration was unwilling to push Musharraf on the issue because it fears losing him as an ally.

Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, says it's too late for the U.S. to rely on Musharraf alone. "The question is, how do we position ourselves, not toward one man, but toward the whole country?" Riedel says. "The problem we face is that the Pakistani people feel that the U.S. is tied to a military dictator who has lost their support."

A new report from the International Republican Institute bears that out: An IRI poll conducted in late January found that more than 80 percent of Pakistanis feel Musharraf's government is headed in the wrong direction; only 9 percent believe the government should cooperate with the U.S. in the war on terrorism.

A recent editorial in the Los Angeles Times suggested that the U.S. is signaling to Musharraf that it will accept something less than free and fair elections in Pakistan. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher told a congressional panel earlier this month that what the U.S. wants are "credible" elections; the Times editorial interpreted that as "just good enough to enable some degree of post-election power-sharing."

At this point, there will be relatively little independent monitoring of the elections. Lisa Gates, a spokeswoman for the International Republican Institute, said her group had decided not to send a monitoring mission, "because security just isn't good enough. They wouldn't have the freedom of movement they'd need to do an effective job."

Senators Joseph Biden (D-DE), John Kerry (D-MA) and Chuck Hagel (R-NE) planned to observe the election and meet with leaders of the government and the opposition. Biden said before leaving that if Pakistani moderates don't get a voice in the system, "there's a real danger they will make common cause with extremists."

Biden is calling for an approach that would triple U.S. non-military aid to Pakistan to $1.5 billion a year for at least 10 years as a way to strengthen civil power in the country. He would provide an additional billion-dollar bonus in non-military aid to the country in the first year after democracy is restored there.

Biden has also argued for a U.S. policy that's aimed at the entire country and not just at an individual personality such as Musharraf.

The Woodrow Wilson Center's Zia Mian says of Musharraf, "There never were any indispensable men."

He says the struggle against extremists in Pakistan has been tainted in the public mind because it is associated with Musharraf and his alliance with the U.S. In Mian's words, "Your indispensable man has become part of the problem."

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