ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — Calls mounted Tuesday for President Pervez Musharraf to step down after his ruling party suffered a resounding defeat in elections that independent monitors described as having been generally free and fair.
But the door also appeared open to the formation of a governing coalition that could allow the Pakistani leader to remain in office, though with his previously sweeping powers curtailed.
Musharraf's lieutenants conceded defeat Tuesday after unofficial results showed that the two major opposition parties had been the top vote-getters in Monday's parliamentary elections.
Final results were expected today.
Between them, opposition parties tied to assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and another ex-prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, won about 60% of contested parliamentary seats whose votes had been counted, according to unofficial results. The pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League-Q garnered a much smaller share than either of its top rivals.
Sharif, who was overthrown in a coup staged by Musharraf in 1999 and has demanded his removal, cited the lopsided results as a popular mandate for the president, a former army general and a key U.S. ally, to leave the political scene altogether.
"The people have said what they want," said Sharif, 58. He extended an offer to form a coalition with the apparent biggest vote-getter, Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, or PPP.
But it was not yet clear whether the PPP, now led by Bhutto's widower, Asif Ali Zardari, would demand that the president step aside or seek an accommodation with him. The two opposition parties were to embark on talks this week.
Zardari told journalists in Islamabad, the capital, that for the time being his party does not want to ally itself with "any of those people who are part and parcel of the last government." But he did not definitively rule out coalition talks with Musharraf's party or any others.
Election observers said that despite complaints of irregularities, it appeared that the vote had been largely credible. Beforehand, critics had warned of the likelihood of massive vote-rigging by the ruling party and the government.
Some analysts said the degree of anti-Musharraf sentiment, which swept many of his closest confidants from office, was simply too overwhelming for the government to have attempted to manipulate the vote.
"I think the government was planning to rig, but the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and the reaction to that forced a rethink," said Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, head of the nonprofit Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency.
"Had there been a perception of rigging, it is very likely the result would have been violence the government was unable to control," he said.
The chief of Musharraf's party said it would not contest the outcome.
"We accept the results with an open heart," Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, who lost his own parliamentary seat, told the Associated Press.
Musharraf was elected to a new five-year term as president by lawmakers late last year. However, the new parliament could overturn his election, which had been challenged by critics in court, or move to impeach him.
Lawmakers could also roll back some of Musharraf's actions during last year's six-week emergency rule, primarily his firing of dozens of judges, including Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry.
According to unofficial results for 261 of the 272 parliamentary seats being contested, the PPP had taken 87 seats and Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N received 67. The ruling party took 38, with smaller and independent parties making up the balance.
Nearly a dozen of the president's closest allies fell victim to anti-Musharraf fervor, losing what had previously been secure seats.
"Heavyweights Knocked Out," said the headline in the Dawn newspaper. "All the King's Men, Gone!" read the banner headline in the Daily Times.
Three visiting U.S. lawmakers described Monday's vote as having been reasonably fair, despite scattered election day violence and a series of attacks during the course of the campaign -- including the suicide bombing that killed Bhutto.
"It was a credible election," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The lawmakers, who also included Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), pointed to the apparent defeat of religious parties in a key border province, and the Islamists' slippage in nationwide polls, as proof that a "moderate majority" had prevailed.
The lawmakers praised Musharraf for having carried through with pledges to give up his post as military chief, which he did late last year, and to hold the elections.
The American delegation declined to say what kind of coalition the United States would prefer to see, but urged all parties to put aside grudges and work together.
The U.S. delegation members, who met Tuesday with Musharraf after the results became clear, described the Pakistani leader as having accepted the outcome and being prepared to work with whatever coalition emerged.
King reported from Islamabad and Chu from Lahore.