ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — As workers counted millions of ballots Thursday, early unofficial results in the first general election since a 1999 coup suggested that allies of President Pervez Musharraf were locked in a tight race with the leading opposition party for control of parliament.
Exit polls and projections based on initial counting of ballots for the National Assembly's 342 seats showed the Pakistan People's Party of exiled former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto holding a slight lead over the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, a staunch Musharraf ally that broke away from a major party.
The first official results today gave a majority in the North-West Frontier province legislature to a coalition of six Islamic parties, whose campaign criticized the U.S. and praised the former Taliban regime in neighboring Afghanistan. The alliance, the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal, also ran strongly in the National Assembly vote and was well ahead of the founding PML faction headed by exiled former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for third place.
The election commission has not released any official results, which are not expected until later today at the earliest.
Although only indications of a trend, the early counting appeared to support polls that predicted Bhutto's party and the PML-Q would be the main contenders for control of the National Assembly. The original PML has promised to support Bhutto's group in a coalition government if--as expected--no party wins an outright majority.
Musharraf, an army general who seized power in the bloodless 1999 coup and a key ally in the U.S.-declared war on terrorism, says he will hand over executive powers Nov. 1 to a prime minister selected by the newly elected National Assembly.
However, Musharraf will remain president and military commander. He has granted himself the constitutional power to dismiss the prime minister and legislature as he chooses. The military also will be able to supervise elected politicians through a new National Security Council, critics complain.
About 72 million Pakistanis were eligible to vote at 60,000 polling stations, but the turnout was reported to be low in most of the country. Only 34% of eligible voters cast ballots in 1997 during Pakistan's last general election. At least seven people died Thursday in election-related violence.
There were no indications of the wholesale ballot stuffing that Pakistanis witnessed in April, when Musharraf held a referendum to confirm himself as president for another five years.
Foreign election observers are withholding judgment on whether Thursday's voting for the National Assembly and four provincial legislatures were free or fair, until after final results are released.
However, opposition parties and human rights groups, including New York-based Human Rights Watch, accused Musharraf's government of trying to rig the election to produce an obedient National Assembly.
"In the three years since the coup, Pakistan has witnessed a consolidation of military power rather than a transition to democracy," said Brad Adams, executive director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. "Pakistan's international partners cannot ignore this fact any longer."
The group called on Musharraf to rescind constitutional amendments that he imposed to, among other things, create the National Security Council, which critics claim will give armed forces commanders a permanent role in government.
Human Rights Watch also urged foreign governments to cut off military aid to Pakistan until Musharraf "implements meaningful democratic reforms." To reward Musharraf for supporting its war on terrorism, Washington lifted military sanctions imposed after Pakistan tested nuclear weapons in 1998.
The U.S. government has authorized the sale of about $400 million in military equipment to Pakistan, including aircraft and Harpoon missiles, Human Rights Watch said. So far, Washington hasn't joined in the criticism of Pakistan's elections.
"This is an important milestone in Pakistan's ongoing transition to democracy, and we will continue to watch this process closely," White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said Thursday in Washington. "We are committed to remaining engaged with Pakistan throughout this transition."
The U.S. government hopes that Thursday's polls, and the vote for a new state government in the Indian-controlled portion of the disputed Kashmir region, will open the way to peace talks between India and Pakistan.
The two nuclear neighbors each lay claim to the Himalayan region, and India accuses Pakistan of allowing militants to cross their border and the cease-fire line dividing Kashmir.
Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee repeated this week that an end to what he calls cross-border terrorism is essential before talks can begin with Pakistan.
Although the absence of high-profile political figures in the election contributed to a low turnout, voters weren't apathetic in the Pushtun tribal areas of Pakistan administered by the federal government.