The general election in Pakistan has resulted in a major upset with a coalition of six pro-Taliban, Islamist parties emerging as a leading force across the country, and no single party or group being in a position to form the government at the centre.
The sweeping victory of the Islamist parties in the North West Frontier Province will force General Pervez Musharraf to reconsider his moves to keep control on 'unwanted elements' in the mountainous border province. What's more, the Islamists have for the first time emerged as a strong political force that can even form a coalition government in Islamabad.
So far the Election Commission has announced the results for 234 seats and the Islamists have grabbed 44, Pakistan Peoples Party, 49, and Pakistan Muslim League, Nawaz Sharief, 13. The leader is the pro-army PML, Quaid-e-Azam, with 73 seats so far.
Clearly, no single party is going to be in a position to reach the halfway mark of 137 and form the government in Islamabad. A coalition is inevitable.
But that was not unexpected. What has surprised political pundits is that the Islamists have ended the almost seven-decade-long domination of the Khan family and its Awami National Party in the NWFP.
The late Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan was a powerhouse in the province long before the birth of Pakistan in 1947. The ANP, the party he founded after independence, is being led by the third generation of his family.
The emergence of the Mutahidda Majlis-e-Amal, a group of Islamist parties, in the NWFP and Balochistan is seen as a direct consequence of the American invasion of Afghanistan and General Musharraf's policy on combating Islamist elements in the country.
The Islamists successfully exploited the issue of US aggression in Afghanistan and Musharraf's policy of supporting the Americans, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The MMA also administered a shock to the Karachi-based Mutahidda Quami Movement, which had dominated the southern port city for more than 15 years, by snatching five of the 20 seats there and killing the myth that MQM strongman Altaf Hussein, who lives in exile in England since 1992, could never be beaten.
The PPP made good progress and showed signs of revival in Punjab, the country's biggest province with a total of 148 seats in the 272-member National Assembly. In the last election in 1997, the party had won just 18 seats across the country, and not a single one in Punjab.
The MMA has now become the country's second party, after the PPP, with representation in all four provinces. It is believed that the MMA will have a role in forming the central government and will also head a coalition government in the crucial NWFP. Thus, the MMA's showing could have an impact on the country's foreign policy, especially with reference to Afghanistan and Jammu & Kashmir.
The MMA constituents were supporters of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and had strong relations with the militia until it was ousted. But no party in the MMA was ever an open supporter of Al Qaeda or Osama bin Laden. They either kept mum or felt that Al Qaeda was a creation of the US.
Gen Musharraf has banned a number of Islamist parties that were active in Afghanistan and Kashmir and arrested hundreds of activists, many of whom are still in jail.
But most provocative for the Islamists was the government's aim of introducing a syllabus for religious schools (madrassas), which the schools flatly refused to accept.
The Islamists began feeling that the government wanted to get a grip on these religious schools, like Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak has done. Thousands of students coming from the world over to get an Islamic education in Pakistan were either sent back or their stay was restricted; new foreign students were practically stopped from coming. The religious schools run mostly on charity and funds from Muslim countries, especially in West Asia.
"People wanted to get rid of the past rulers and the pro-American policies of Gen Musharraf, so they voted for us," said Jamaat-e-Islami chief Qazi Hussain. Jamaat-e-Islami is the leading force in the MMA and Qazi himself won from two constituencies.
"This is a vote against the government's pro-American policies and a clear sign that our identity is Islam," said Arif Ata, 35, a banker and leading MMA worker in Karachi.
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Islamic hardliners win in NWFP; PPPP, PML-Q in close race
Musharraf rigged the polls: Bhutto, Sharief
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