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So Far, No Clear Leader in Pakistan's Parliamentary Election - 2002-10-11

In Pakistan, ballot counting continues, following Thursday's general election. The polls were the first since a bloodless military coup three years ago swept away civilian government. Early returns, with about two-thirds of the races decided, have yielded some surprises.

It appears certain the result will be a hung parliament, with no party commanding a clear majority to form a government without partners.

A party loyal to the country's military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, took the lead in the early counting for seats in the 342-seat National Assembly. But the trends show the party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the Pakistan Peoples' Party, led by another exiled prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, making steady gains. Both former leaders, convicted of corruption-related offenses, were barred from running for office.

A coalition of six Islamic parties has made a strong showing, picking up more than 30 parliamentary seats. It also swept elections for the provincial assembly in the Northwest Frontier Province, and may control the Baluchistan provincial assembly as well.

It was a stunning outcome for the coalition. Religious parties have only managed to win a couple of seats in previous elections. The Islamic parties campaigned on a platform of anti-Musharraf sentiment, fanned by the president's support for the U.S.-led anti-terrorism effort.

Peter Manikas, Asia program director for the U.S. National Democratic Institute, says a lack of palatable choices boosted the fortunes of the religion-based parties.

"Lacking a real alternative, people have a choice between military dictatorship and what's being viewed as venal and ineffective political parties. And they're turning to the religious organizations, I think, as an alternative to that," he said.

Reza Rabbani, secretary-general of the Pakistan Peoples' Party, has a different theory. He says the government's ban on most public activity by the mainstream parties gave the Islamic candidates an advantage.

"It is essentially the non-presence of the mainstream political leadership and not allowing the liberal, democratic, progressive parties to have even playing fields with the religious parties that has created this situation today," Mr. Rabbani said.

No serious complaints have emerged about the conduct of the vote. But there have been numerous allegations about government favoritism to pro-government candidates.

Tan Sri Musa Hitam, leader of a delegation of Commonwealth observers, says the polls were well organized, and for the most part, transparent. But he notes the imbalance in electoral resources.

"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 said. "This has raised doubts as to whether it can be said that the playing field was truly level."

In an interview with VOA, Interior Minister Moindeen Haider praised the relative peace of the elections.

"I think on the South Asian standard it went very well," the minister said. "There was not violence. As compared to many elections in Pakistan, it was one of our most peaceful elections."

In fact, six people were killed and dozens more injured in clashes between rival political factions. But, as Mr. Haider notes, the level of violence was far below that of previous elections in Pakistan.