ISLAMABAD The main party that backs Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf was headed for defeat on Tuesday after voters rallied to the opposition, raising questions about the future of the U.S. ally who has ruled since 1999.
As president, former army chief Musharraf did not contest Monday's parliamentary elections aimed at completing a transition to civilian rule, but the outcome could seal his fate.
A hostile parliament could try to remove Musharraf, who took power as a general in a 1999 coup and emerged as a crucial U.S. ally in a "war on terror" that most Pakistanis think is Washington's, not theirs.
The election was relatively peaceful after a bloody campaign and opposition fears of rampant rigging by Musharraf's supporters appeared unfounded.
The election was postponed from January 8 after the assassination of former prime minister and opposition leader Benazir Bhutto in a suicide attack on December 27.
The death of Bhutto, the most progressive, Western-friendly politician in a Muslim nation rife with anti-American sentiment, raised concern about the stability of the nuclear-armed country.
Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) has been expected to reap a sympathy vote after her murder but some analysts said the decisive factor in the election was Musharraf.
In a major blow for the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) which backs Musharraf, its president, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, a former prime minister, was defeated in his Punjab province constituency by a rival from Bhutto's party, television networks said, citing unofficial Election Commission tallies.
Several other prominent PML members, including ministers in Musharraf's outgoing government, lost their seats, television stations reported.
"The PML could not save itself from Musharraf's unpopularity," newspaper editor Mjeeb-ur-Rehman told Geo Television.
Musharraf's ratings have plunged over the past year, particularly after he imposed six weeks of emergency rule and purged the judiciary.
Many Pakistanis also blame him and his PML-led government for rising prices, food shortages and power cuts.
Full unofficial election results are expected later on Tuesday.
"ACCEPT THE RESULTS"
Musharraf said on Monday he would work with whoever won to build democracy in a country that has alternated between civilian and army rule throughout its 60-year history.
"This is the voice of the nation," Musharraf said on state-run Pakistan Television late on Monday. "Everyone should accept the results, that includes myself."
Fear kept many Pakistanis away from the polls, despite 80,000 troops backing up police, and turnout is expected to be about 40 percent.
A suicide bomb campaign waged by al Qaeda-inspired militants has added to a mounting sense of insecurity. More than 450 people have been killed in militant-related violence this year.
Election-day violence, though bad in places, was not as severe as many had feared. At least 20 people were killed, including 15 activists from Bhutto's party, her widower Asif Ali Zardari said.
No party is expected to win a majority in the 342-seat National Assembly but either Bhutto's PPP or the other main opposition party, led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, would be the biggest.
While Butto's PPP benefited form a sympathy vote in her native Sindh province, Sharif's party appeared to be doing well in Punjab province, where half the members of parliament will be elected.
Whichever party wins most seats will be in the best position to lead a coalition.
A victory for Sharif, who Musharraf ousted in 1999, would be a disaster for Musharraf. Sharif has repeatedly called for Musharraf's removal.
Analysts say Musharraf wants a coalition between the PPP and the PML.
A Pakistani poll watchdog group said there had been a few incidents of polling irregularities.
Western allies hope for a stable Pakistan focused on fighting militancy, as do investors in a stock market that rose 40 percent last year but has shed about 3 percent since Bhutto's death.
(Additional reporting by Kamran Haider and Jon Hemming in Lahore, Faisal Aziz and Sahar Ahmed in Karachi and Simon Gardner in Larkana; writing by Simon Cameron-Moore; editing by Robert Birsel and Sanjeev Miglani)