- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 20, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The widower of slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto emerged yesterday as Pakistan’s most powerful politician, in a position to form the next government, choose the prime minister and possibly determine the fate of President Pervez Musharraf.

Islamist parties sympathetic to al Qaeda and the Taliban also suffered big setbacks, losing control of a key province along the Afghan border where Osama bin Laden and other terrorist leaders are thought to be hiding.

Mrs. Bhutto’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari, ruled out a coalition that included “any of those people who are part and parcel of the previous government.”

He said nothing definitive about the next government’s relationship with Mr. Musharraf, who was elected by outgoing lawmakers to a second five-year term last fall.

Election commission secretary Kanwar Dilshad said the official results of the vote were set to be announced today after the final handful of constituencies were tallied up. With votes counted in 258 out of 272 constituencies, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and Mr. Sharif’s party had a combined total of 153 seats, the commission said. The former ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Q (PML-Q) and its allies together had 58.

Results also showed a near total defeat for hard-line Islamic parties that under the previous administration ruled Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province bordering Afghan-istan.

In Washington, the State Department said it would continue to work with Mr. Musharraf and work with “whatever government flows from these elections.”

The U.S. depends on Mr. Musharraf to prosecute the war on terrorism, especially with recent gains by militants and terrorist groups on the Pakistani side of the Afghan border — a trend that Washington hopes to reverse.

White House press secretary Dana Perino told reporters on Air Force One as President Bush flew from Rwanda to Ghana yesterday that the elections “seem to have been largely fair.”

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, leader of the No. 2 opposition party, called on Mr. Musharraf to step down.

“[Mr. Musharraf] has said before that he would go when the people want him to do so and now the people have given their verdict,” Mr. Sharif told reporters in Lahore.

A day after Monday’s vote, Mrs. Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party surged ahead, capturing 87 seats of the 272 up for grabs in the lower house of parliament, according to unofficial tallies reported by Geo television news channel.

Mr. Sharif’s branch of the Pakistan Muslim League was second with 66.

A coalition between the two would have a clear majority but fall well short of the two-thirds majority needed to force Mr. Musharraf from office.

The Pakistan Muslim League-Q, which supported Mr. Musharraf for the past five years, ended in third place with 38 seats and conceded defeat.

“We accept the election results, and will sit on opposition benches,” PML-Q Chairman Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain told AP Television News. “We are accepting the results with grace and open heart.”

Official results were expected today or tomorrow.

Mr. Zardari met with his top party leaders in Islamabad, and later told reporters he would hold discussions with Mr. Sharif and Asfandyar Wali Khan, who heads the Awami National Party (ANP), which won 10 seats.

ANP consists of secular-oriented ethnic Pashtuns based in the North West Frontier Province and Baluchistan, two provinces that border Afghanistan.

Mr. Zardari said he would attempt to form a “government of consensus.”

But one condition he set for other parties joining a PPP-led coalition would be to support an investigation of the Dec. 27 assassination of Mrs. Bhutto.

Mr. Zardari also appeared to support Mr. Sharif’s call for the release of about 60 judges, who have been under house arrest since Mr. Musharraf’s Nov. 3 declaration of a state of emergency.

As it stands, the constitution gives Mr. Musharraf power to dismiss parliament. Mr. Zardari and Mr. Sharif would need at least 182 seats in the National Assembly to force the president from office.

U.S. concerns over recent gains by militants appeared to have been shared by Pakistani voters.

Among Islamist parties, the largest pro-Taliban party, Jamiat-e-Ulema Islami, won only three seats in the national parliament.

A coalition of Islamist parties was poised to lose control of the regional administration in the North West Frontier Province, which it won in 2002 elections.

Unofficial returns showed the secular ANP had won 31 of the 96 contested seats in the provincial assembly, with the religious United Action Forum taking only nine seats.

Awami Vice Chairman Haji Ghulan Ahmad Balor said his group would form a governing coalition with other “like-minded” factions.

Residents of the province had complained the Islamist government failed to provide public services and was unable to prevent foreign fighters from crossing the border from Afghanistan.

Jon Ward contributed from Ghana to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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