KARACHI, Feb 19 (IPS) - With unofficial results for Pakistan's general elections heralding major upsets for President Pervez Musharraf's allies, the message was loud and clear: despite the pre-poll manipulations and irregularities voters have rejected the politics of hate and religious extremism.
Though final results are yet to be announced, the Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz (PML-N), led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, and the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) of Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated on Dec. 27, have emerged as the two largest parties -- routing the pro-Musharraf, Pakistan Muslim League - Quaid (PML-Q).
Sharif and Asif Zardari, widower of Bhutto and leader of the PPP, are now discussing the possibility of forming a coalition government.
Some 45.6 percent of the electorate turned out to vote, according to the Election Commission (EC), confounding predictions of poor voter turnout expected due to the high levels of pre-poll violence coupled with the move by several political parties to boycott the polls.
The elections have been unprecedented on many counts. The election schedule was announced on Nov. 20 during the emergency rule imposed by Musharraf, then army chief as well as president. On Nov. 3, 2007, Musharraf essentially conducted a coup against himself, commented Mohammed Hanif, head of the BBC Urdu service at the time: "Faced with increasing demands to give up his position as military chief and confront the complexities of civilian rule, Gen. Musharraf decided to topple President Musharraf."
Musharraf had initially indicated that the elections would be held under emergency rule but faced with intense international and domestic pressure, he lifted the emergency on Dec. 15, but not before he had taken oath as a civilian president and made as many as 15 amendments to the constitution that gave this office more powers.
Musharraf also sacked nearly 60 members of the higher judiciary, including Supreme Court chief justice Iftikhar M. Chaudhry, because they refused to endorse the emergency and were known to be opposed to his election as president while still army chief. Sharif and other politicians have said that the prime objective of the new government would be to reinstate the sacked judges.
Citing widespread irregularities and manipulations by the ruling party, organisations like the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan announced that there was no point in monitoring the polls. The Citizens Group for Electoral Process gave the pre-poll process an overall score of 26 on a scale of 100 in terms of fairness.
Despite, or perhaps because of these manipulations, Monday's polls were the most scrutinised in Pakistan's history, drawing an unprecedented number of international observers -- over 500. They included three prominent United States senators, Joseph Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, along with senior panel members John Kerry and Chuck Hagel.
Speaking with the BBC's Lyse Doucet on Feb. 19 in Islamabad, Kerry expressed his "admiration for Pakistani voters," who have spoken, he said, "powerfully and forcefully", going to the polls despite the pre-poll violence and loss of lives.
Doucet, no stranger to Pakistan, is among the over 700 foreign journalists who have landed here for the elections. Immigration authorities set up separate counters to facilitate the foreign media at Pakistan's international airports some days before the polls.
In addition, for the first time, the elections were held under the spotlight of over 40 privately-owned television channels. The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists and other organisations, like Human Rights Watch, had in the run up to the elections expressed anxiety about how much freedom the electronic media would be allowed.
Musharraf's six-week emergency rule from Nov. 3 was accompanied by a blackout of all independent news channels. They were allowed back on air only under a restrictive code of conduct imposed by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority. Addressing a press conference on Tuesday, PML-N's Sharif lauded journalists for covering the election campaigns risking their lives, and despite the restrictions.
A day before the elections, Attorney General Malik Qayyum had termed these restrictions as "illegal". He was addressing a press conference at which he denied that it was his voice admitting that the polls would be "massively rigged" on the audio tape recording released recently by the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
Although the PPP and PML-N have emerged with a thumping majority according to the unofficial results, observers point out that this happened despite the pre-poll manipulations that had been documented earlier.
Talking to Geo News on Tuesday morning, as the results were still coming in, the routed former chief minister of Punjab and provincial president of the PML-Q Choudhry Parvaiz Elahi, who won one of the three National Assembly seats he was contesting, said he accepted his party's defeat.
"Not all the results are in yet," he added. "We are confident that we will still win some more." Sure enough, the last few results to come in did push the PML-Q to a better position.
The delays in reporting the results of some key constituencies aroused some suspicion. "They wanted to hold back the results of several seats," said Nawaz Sharif in his press conference, citing delayed results where his party eventually lost by narrow margins.
Many voters could not find their names on the electoral list, while others whose names were listed were prevented from voting. Amiruddin Channa, who came to Karachi from Dadu in interior Sindh 22 years ago, told IPS that he had been trying to find his name on the voters' list since morning. The 65-year-old retired senior government official's wife and daughter's names were finally located and they cast their votes.
"But the polling officer told me my vote was in Dadu although I saw it on the list here. I have also served as a presiding official, but we dealt with cases judiciously. The presiding officer here refused to take a stand. When I insisted on my right to vote, a goonda (hooligan) there became very threatening, so I left," Channa told IPS. "I'm a pensioner, I have high blood pressure, it doesn't make a difference to me whether the PPP comes to power or whoever. I'm never voting again."
Several other incidents of vote manipulation, violence and loss of lives, were reported around the country.
Political science professor Sahar Shafqat also points to "the massive systematic disenfranchisement of women," noting that women were barred from voting in several districts in NWFP. "But maybe more serious is that women are simply missing from the electoral rolls. Since the rolls are based on the national identity cards which many women simply don't have or are barred from obtaining, they are severely underrepresented in the lists."
IPS obtained several eye-witness accounts of ballot papers being illegally stamped and stuffed at polling stations around Karachi, the stronghold of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (United National Movement or MQM).
"I myself stamped two ballots for MQM," Javed (real name withheld) told IPS. "The boys came at 8 am to take people out to vote. They returned at 10 am and took me along for elections 'work'. I went into four polling stations with them in our area."