ISLAMABAD, Feb 18: After being sidelined for more than eight years by army intervention, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) seemed headed for a shock comeback as initial partial results of Monday’s elections put a question mark over President Pervez Musharraf’s political future.

The previously ruling Pakistan Muslim League (PML) of the president’s loyalists and some of its allies appeared to have suffered a humiliating drubbing in the low-turnout elections for the National Assembly and four provincial assemblies despite a perceived support they got from local governments and other state agencies in what the opposition parties called pre-poll rigging.

The PML-N had won 29 and the PPP 27 National Assembly seats after, what were called unofficial results for 87 constituencies, were known well past midnight, until when the PML-Q had won only nine and NWFP-based Awami National Party seven while nine had gone to independents, mainly in the party-less Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

The MMA, which ruled the NWFP for five years, appeared in danger of being wiped out from both the National Assembly and the Frontier legislature.

But the one-time arch-rivals turned allies PPP and PML-N were leading in most of the other constituencies of the lower house as well as of the provincial assemblies of the Punjab and Sindh while the remaining two provinces of the North-West Frontier and Balochistan appeared destined to get more mixed coalitions.

The trend seemed in line with opinion polls by local and foreign pollsters and forecasts by most political analysts, but it looked like a shock for the PML and President Musharraf after the regime had repeatedly rejected all adverse predictions as biased or misjudgements.

But while the partial results had already started trickling in, the president, while appearing briefly on the state-run Pakistan Television, called the vote “the voice of the nation” and said whoever won in what he called the “mother of elections” must be accepted. “We must accept the result gracefully.”

While the PPP was likely to win most of the National Assembly and provincial assembly seats in its main power base of Sindh province, besides sharing the spoils in the other three provinces of Punjab, North-West Frontier Province and Balochistan, the PML-N looked doing unexpectedly well in Punjab, even giving some shocks to a friendly PPP.

The PPP had the honour of toppling PML president Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain in his hometown of Gujrat and National Assembly Speaker Chaudhry Amir Hussain in Sialkot district, but its leadership could not fully capitalise on a sympathy wave after the Dec 27 assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

While top PPP leaders remained comparatively inactive during a 40-day mourning for Ms Bhutto and did not campaign much even afterwards, PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif created his own wave in his home province of Punjab and Hazara region of the NWFP with his hard line against President Musharraf and for the restoration of about 60 superior court judges who were sacked under the extra-constitutional emergency the president had declared on Nov 3 in his now given up capacity as army chief.

Both the PPP and PML-N have vowed to cooperate in the formation of the future government --- and possibly have a government of national consensus --- if they together win a majority.A two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament would enable them to impeach the president and to deprive the presidency of its powers to sack a prime minister and dissolve the parliament by restoring the Constitution to its pre-Oct 12, 1999 position when General Musharraf suspended it while capturing power by toppling the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif and then amending it by decree.

But that does not seem to be an immediate possibility while a PML-led coalition has a majority in the 100-seat Senate and it is not yet certain if all the opposition parties together will have a two-thirds majority in the 342-seat National Assembly.

Muttahida Qaumi Movement’s self-exiled leader Altaf Hussain, whose party until now has been an ally of PML and the president and is likely to retain its hold in the urban centres of Karachi and Hyderabad, said in London it was ready to talk to PPP and PML-N about the future cooperation.

Monday’s voting from 8am to 5pm, after a prolonged and bloody campaign, was held at about 64,000 polling stations across the country for 268 of the 272 general seats of the National Assembly and 569 of the 577 general seats of the provincial assemblies which were up for grabs.

The elections in four constituencies of the National Assembly, including that of Benazir Bhutto in Sindh, and eight of provincial assemblies were postponed owing to the death of a candidate or law and order reasons.

A total of 221 reserved seats for women and non-Muslim minority communities in the National Assembly and the provincial assemblies will be allocated to political parties after the polling results in proportion to general seats they win in each chamber in accordance with their preference lists already submitted to the Election Commission.

Sixty seats are reserved for women and 10 for non-Muslims in the National Assembly, 66 for women and eight for non-Muslims in the 371-seat Punjab assembly, 29 for women and nine for non-Muslims in the 168-seat Sindh assembly, 22 for women and three for non-Muslims in the 124-seat NWFP assembly, and 11 for women and three for non-Muslims in the 65-seat Balochistan assembly.

No figure was yet available from the Election Commission about the turnout from about 82 million registered voters at polling stations across the country. But reports from all the four provinces said it was lower than 41.76 per cent of the previous elections in 2002, when the PPP polled the largest number of votes but did not win enough seats to form a government because of President Musharraf’s policy to sideline the party along with the PML-N.

Officials said 19 people were killed in shootouts during the day’s polling but there was no such thing as terrorist suicide bomb attacks, the fear of which was largely responsible for the low turnout.

Polling was very slow in the beginning of the vote but picked up at about noon and afterwards on a rare sunny day after a long and severe cold spell for decades, which had also hit the campaigning besides Ms Bhutto’s assassination in a gun-and-bomb attack after she had addressed a PPP campaign rally at Rawalpindi’s Liaquat Bagh.

As polling was in progress in Rawalpindi, PPP workers continued to assemble at the spot outside the park where Ms Bhutto was killed as she waved to a cheering crowd from the roof opening of her bullet-proof vehicle.

Originally the vote was set for Jan 8 but was put off to Feb 18 after violent protests sparked by Ms Bhutto’s assassination, which overshadowed the election campaign as well as a campaign for a boycott of the process by some smaller parties grouped in the All Parties Democratic Movement.