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Pakistanis reject Musharraf rule, embrace new direction

The opposition wins by a landslide in a surprisingly smooth election, as Musharraf allies concede defeat.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 20, 2008

Excited: Mohammed Hafeez says he stayed up until 4 a.m. watching election results on television.

Mark Sappenfield

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On a historic Monday, Pakistan's voters emphatically rejected the rule of President Pervez Musharraf's government, eviscerating the parties that supported him and throwing his own future into doubt.

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The vote was fraught with significance, both for this crisis-weary country and for the West, which increasingly sees Pakistan as the keystone in its struggle against terrorism. In the short term, the result looks to have given Pakistan a much-needed measure of stability as jubilant voters feel that, finally, their voice has been heard.

In the longer term, the results could recast the nature of America's attempts to fight terrorists here. While Pakistan's new leadership will likely share America's desire to rein in extremists, experts say, they will want to distance themselves from the perception that they are Washington's lackey, which is the general view of Mr. Musharraf here.

"The coming government will have to give the message that, from now on, they are making decisions on their own," says Khalid Rahman, a political analyst at the Institute of Policy Studies in Islamabad.

Yet he and others note that the election was a repudiation of Pakistan's flirtation with radical Islam. At press time, with more than half of the results announced, Islamic parties had taken only three of 272 seats in the National Assembly, compared with 45 in 2002. In their place, voters chose secular parties, such as Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP).

"This is profoundly a vote for liberal democracy," says Shafqat Mahmood, a former senator, now a columnist for The News, a national newspaper.

The entire election was a remarkable reverse from expectations. Despite fears of widespread violence, no suicide bombers struck. Despite fears of substantial rigging – and some evidence of it on election day, observers say – the presence of the media and international pressure ensured that it did not play a decisive factor.

"Come election day, there were so many eyes watching," says Muddasir Rizvi, head of the Free and Fair Election Network, a nonprofit organization that deployed 60,000 observers. There were irregularities, he acknowledges, but "they were not as much as expected."

Indeed, several of Musharraf's most powerful parliamentary allies were struck down – to the amazement of voters, who had not believed that the government would allow such a result.

"The result is the blessing of God, otherwise I would not have believed it," says Mohammed Hafeez, a local resident relaxing near Lahore's famous Minar-e Pakistan, who says she stayed up until 4 a.m. watching the results on television.