ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Voters have denied any political party an outright majority in this week's election, which could leave anti-American Islamic mullahs holding the balance of power in parliament and control of a province that is key to the U.S.-declared war on terrorism.
With most of the ballots counted Friday, the election was still a tossup between allies of President Pervez Musharraf and the opposition Pakistan People's Party, headed by exiled former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
But with neither side likely to have gained a mandate to govern in Thursday's balloting, they will have to bargain for support in the National Assembly from the United Council of Action, a coalition of six Islamic parties.
Official results were announced today for all but six of the National Assembly's 342 seats. They showed that the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, the pro-Musharraf faction that broke away from a major party, was leading with 77 seats. Bhutto's party had won 62.
The Islamic coalition was running third with 49 seats, while the original PML, headed by exiled former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, was running a distant fourth with 16 seats.
Independent candidates and smaller parties, along with women and minorities who were guaranteed a certain number of seats, accounted for the rest. However, just hours before the polls opened Thursday, Musharraf issued an edict forcing independent candidates to join an approved party within three days of the vote.
The United Council of Action won a majority of seats in the North-West Frontier Province's assembly, allowing it to form the local government in a region bordering Afghanistan. Pakistani forces there are hunting Al Qaeda and Taliban holdouts with the aid of U.S. forces.
The council is a loose coalition of hard-line mullahs and more politically pragmatic leaders. The group even bridges the bloody divide between minority Shiite and majority Sunni Muslims, who have carried out terrorist attacks against each other for years.
The clerics' new political strength could embolden opponents of U.S. policies and military operations here and in Afghanistan to make demands in exchange for their support of a new national government.
Although Musharraf has promised to hand over civil authority to a prime minister appointed by the new National Assembly, he remains president and commander of the armed forces. As such, he is unlikely to allow major changes in foreign and defense policy. But he could soften his campaign against Islamic extremism within Pakistan, complicating U.S. efforts to deny terrorists a haven here.
In addition, the Islamic coalition's leaders are hawks on the dispute with India over the divided Kashmir region and could complicate Western efforts to ease tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbors.
Musharraf's critics, such as the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and mainstream opposition parties, argue that he has been backtracking for months on his commitment to curb extremism, in part to curry favor with Islamic parties in the run-up to Thursday's vote.
Musharraf has succeeded in weakening the influence of Pakistan's two main parties by banning their exiled leaders, Bhutto and Sharif, from running. In turn, the president has built up allies in the breakaway PML-Q.
Musa Hitam of Malaysia, head of a team of election observers from the British Commonwealth, gave guarded approval to this week's balloting while also giving credence to opposition charges of pre-poll manipulations.
"Of particular concern have been allegations of the widespread use of government influence and resources to favor certain parties and candidates and, conversely, to disadvantage others," he told reporters Friday. "This has raised doubts as to whether it can be said that the playing field was truly level."
Maulana Fazlur Rehman, the Islamic coalition's secretary-general and a leader of the influential Jamiat-ul-Ulema-e-Islam party, said the group has not decided which party it would be willing to join in a coalition government.
"We are going to Islamabad with an open mind, and we have our own priorities," Rehman said Friday by telephone from his hometown, Dera Ismail Khan, about 190 miles southwest of the capital, Islamabad.
Those priorities include "molding the constitution in accordance with the Islamic teachings, so that people should live a true Islamic life," he said.
The coalition campaigned on a wide range of populist promises that include better protection for workers, more power for Pakistan's four provinces and what it calls a peaceful Islamic revolution.
Like the Taliban, the Islamic regime ousted from power in Afghanistan last fall by U.S.-led troops, the coalition has demanded a ban on music, dancing and coeducational schools. Its supporters prevented many women from voting in the ethnic Pushtun tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.